Portland’s police department has a military surplus armored vehicle. So does the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office. Dozens of Maine police agencies have military gear including weapons and body armor.
If you don’t think that could be a problem, look at the images from Ferguson, Mo., where an overmilitarized police force lost control of a crowd, turning angry protests into near-riot conditions.
Police around the country have been receiving military equipment since the terrorist attacks of 2001, building the capacity of their tactical or SWAT teams for use in extraordinary circumstances, such as responding to a terrorist attack or combating a well-armed drug gang. But in the wrong situation, as appears to have happened in Ferguson, the use of this equipment can escalate conflict instead of containing it.
The police may have had the best intentions, but their image was one of confrontation. Officers in body armor perched on the top of armored vehicles, aiming high-powered rifles, may be the right response to a hostile action by a well-armed enemy, but it’s not the right way to treat a crowd of fellow citizens who are exercising their rights to free speech and assembly.
What’s happening in Ferguson is especially troubling because the protests come after a police shooting of an unarmed teenager, which is now under investigation. Did a Ferguson police officer use excessive force when he killed Michael Brown? Perhaps, but it’s clear that police did use excessive force controlling the crowd that gathered to protest the killing. And this was not just a momentary reaction by an officer under stress, but an intentional strategy ordered by police leadership.
Aiming a gun at someone to control behavior is a use of force, even if no shots are fired. Police should deploy this force only as a last resort, after all peaceful methods of crowd control are exhausted.The basic goals of a soldier and a police officer are so different it makes sense that they should have different equipment and training. The weapons on display in Ferguson would be more suited to a force that was trying to kill its enemy than one that is charged with protecting public safety during a volatile situation.
Fortunately, we have not seen the same kind of overreach in Maine, but the potential for it does exist.
Civilian leaders should ask themselves how they would feel if pictures like those from Ferguson were shot in their hometown. They should consider whether that kind of confrontation would have been likely or even possible if police had used traditional police equipment and tactics.
No one wants to deny officers the tools they need to do their jobs safely, or to allow opportunistic thugs to use a peaceful protest as an opportunity to loot and riot.
But the first police response should always be measured and nonviolent. A community that sanctions the use of military equipment is asking for a response that is neither.