Finally, the rest of the country is paying attention to an issue that has concerned libertarians and many conservatives for years – the increasing militarization of police forces nationwide.

First, a personal note: Both as a conservative, and as a police officer’s son, I tend to side with the forces of law and order unless something obviously egregious has occurred. And having served as an infantry officer in Vietnam, I have well-founded appreciation for the power (and limits) of military force.

As events in Ferguson, Missouri, have illustrated (as only the most recent example out of hundreds, but the most publicized one), the U.S. government has been providing free or cut-rate military supplies to local and state law enforcement agencies, beginning a full decade before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The equipment includes armored personnel carriers, body armor, weapons, remote-controlled drones and other gear associated more with the battlefield than city streets.

Certainly there are circumstances, such as riots, terrorist attacks or large-scale gang warfare, where such weaponry can play a useful role.

However, it has bothered civil libertarians and small-government advocates for years that all this deadly armament hasn’t just been going to major urban centers, but has been distributed in huge quantities to much smaller communities, which have far fewer reasons to have it.

As Fox News reported Aug. 16, citing a June report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Local enforcement agencies can look through an online catalog to purchase items like small arms and tents. Getting (an armored vehicle) or military aircraft requires a small amount of extra work – authorities need to fill out a one-page request form, specifying if they prefer the vehicle with wheels or tank tracks.”

The story said local forces have received more than $4.3 billion in such equipment to date.

“The police chief in Keene, N.H., for example, requested an armored vehicle to patrol the town’s ‘Pumpkin Festival and other dangerous situations,’ according to a report in The Economist.

Keene has a population of around 23,000. Authorities in Fargo, N.D., asked the government for, and received, an armored personnel carrier with a rotating turret.”

Even college security forces are getting their share: A sidebar noted that nine out of 10 universities employ armed officers authorized to use deadly force.

And in 2013, “the campus police at The Ohio State University procured a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle (MRAP), according to the Daily Caller website. The vehicle, which school officials noted was ‘acquired at no cost from military surplus,’ has a gun turret on the roof and is designed to stave off ambushes and roll over improvised explosive devices. OSU was also the first agency in the state to acquire an MRAP at the time.

“Evidence of beefed-up college police arsenals was also seen in 2011, during the height of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests, when campus cops at UC Davis in Northern California were seen controlling the crowd in full riot gear. A year later, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte appointed its own SWAT team, outfitted with MP-15 rifles, M&P .40-caliber pistols and shotguns.”

The up-arming of police occurred as many departments of all sizes were forming “Special Weapons and Tactics” (SWAT) teams organized along military lines and equipped with helmets, body armor, camouflage uniforms and military-style weaponry.

As the ACLU and many others have noted, the ubiquity of such units, which again have a role in very specialized circumstances, has instead led to their use in routine cases (along the lines of, “We’ve got these guys, let’s give them something to do”) where violent resistance is only a remote possibility.

There are many accounts, even whole books, full of examples of violent (and sometimes fatal) SWAT tactics being applied where allegations of minor offenses involved unresisting civilians, including ones that turned out to be wholly innocent.

If the use of such force is really necessary, why not instead call out the already well-trained and fully equipped National Guard (as happened in Ferguson as rioting continued there)?

Now, I’ll get personal again. When I took the Army’s commissioning oath in July 1967, I and my fellow officers knew we could soon be putting our own lives at risk, as well as the lives of those under our command.

Public safety personnel, particularly law enforcement and firefighters, also risk their lives, but under different circumstances.

Soldiers fight an enemy force; first responders exist to “protect and serve” the innocent, and are not judges or juries.

But if military-derived SWAT doctrines and equipment encourage police to treat citizens as the “enemy,” we are headed for disaster.

All Americans have the presumption of innocence on their side. Unless they are actively resisting arrest, assaulting an officer or threatening or engaged in violence against others, they deserve to be treated that way.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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