A Local police officer from Canton PD gives us his thoughts on the topic of police militarization. I am very happy to see the discourse by officers being laid out so respectfully and professionally (this is not always the case). This is tough topic to discuss and write about because it brings up mixed emotions and sparks extreme emotions as well. The point I feel many police are missing on this topic is “police militarization” it’s not solely about equipment and tactics…It’s About Mission Creep!
In an upcoming article I am working on it I will explain my thinking on how mission creep has brought this topic to the crescendo it has now reached. In this upcoming piece I dig more deeply than I have in the past. Why? Because its is an important topic that will have, great consequences for police and how we operate.
Most of the people who have brought attention to “police militarization” guys like Radely Balko who wrote a book last year titled “Rise of the Warrior Cop: Police Militarization in America” believes we cops should have the equipment and gear and use the tactics but that we need to be more strategic in our application. I tend to agree with him on this.
Officer Rob Quirk did a nice job with this piece. Read on for the details.
Unless you’re a cop you’ve probably never experienced this scenario. Here’s how it goes. You and your partner walk in the front door of Mike’s Pizza. Your entrance is reminiscent of a sheriff walking into a saloon and you’re immediately greeted by that one guy. There’s one in every room, there always is. You can usually pick him out before he even opens his mouth. “I didn’t do it!” he exclaims beaming from ear to ear, so proud of his imagined originality. You look over at him, it’s unavoidable. There is a whole list of things you want to say to him but most of those things will land you in the corner office so you somehow manage to give him a smile and a forced chuckle before moving on. Then you sit down, facing the door of course. Some folks have moved on to bigger and better topics but some people are still looking you. Then your food comes and at least one person is staring at you with their head cocked slightly to one side as if to say “Oh my god they eat.” When you’re finished eating the real fun begins, it’s time to pay the check. So you stroll up and get in line for the cashier. Now it’s your turn, you step up to the register and hand the cashier your check. You know what’s coming next. In the loudest possible voice, she bellows “Cawwwpps eat fahhh freee putcha money away!” So for the second time in one meal you are again the focus of everyone’s attention. You plead with her for the love of God to just run your card through the machine. Nope, it’s like talking to a stone wall. So now you have to slap $40 on the counter for a $21 meal because all you have are two twenties and all you want to do is get out of dodge.
I relate that humorous little scenario because it’s important to understand the humanity behind the badge. Yes, believe it or not, we eat. We also put our pants on one leg at time. The general public often forgets that there’s a person under that uniform. The tragic events in Ferguson have left the American public with a distorted view of police officers in this country. The images of armored vehicles, tear gas, smoke, scary police officers dressed in riot gear and the harrowing sound of gunshots has pierced the American psyche at the speed of Twitter. Gone are the images of Andy Griffith and Barney Fife rolling through Mayberry with a bubble light and an unloaded revolver. The events in Ferguson have launched this country into a serious debate on the “militarization” of our nation’s police forces.
The truth of the matter is that we aren’t just police officers. We live and work in same communities as you. We share all of the same concerns. The last thing we want is armored vehicles and heavily armed cops roaming the streets in scenes reminiscent of Pinochet’s Chile or Hitler’s Third Reich. If that is image we are portraying to our fellow citizens then we need to take a step back and seriously evaluate things.
My grandparents grew up in South Boston and Medford and both my parents were raised in urban environments. Nobody in my family knew anyone with guns–well legal guns anyway. When I became a cop at 22, I had just graduated college and was living back at home at the time. After my police academy graduation my mother offered her congratulations before pointing at my shiny new Glock and saying very matter of factly, “That thing is not coming home with you.” Truth be told, I’m not a ‘gun guy’ either. If I could do the job without it I would. I’m proficient with it, I practice with it, and I can hit what I’m aiming for but beyond that I have no use for the thing. As police officers our firearms are simply tools we hope we never have to use. I don’t get my kicks off carrying around a big gun.
The media has been clamoring about the police being issued “machine guns” and “assault rifles” under the Defense Department’s 1033 program. The term assault rifle is simply a catch phrase as the purpose of every weapon is to assault. Another misused phrase is “machine gun.” Let’s clear this up right now, police do not carry “machine guns.” A “machine gun” refers to a fully automatic weapon that fires multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger. I carry an AR-15 patrol rifle in my cruiser every day as does every other Canton police officer. An AR-15 is the civilian version of the M-16 but it is semi-automatic which means you pull the trigger once and one bullet comes out. It’s not a “machine gun,” but I guess it is an “assault” rifle. It sits right next to my “assault” handgun, my “assault” pepper spray and my “assault” baton. Interestingly, I can guarantee you that 90% of the population of Canton has no clue I even have that rifle in my patrol car. I don’t walk the streets with my rifle at the low ready, or sling it over my shoulder at calls. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually had to deploy the thing in eight years on the job. The only time it gets noticed is when a kid sticks his head inside my cruiser to check out all the cool stuff and exclaims “oh man, that’s so cool! Can I shoot it!”
Statistically, the chances of an individual police officer having to fire his or her weapon in the line of duty is minimal. The chances might be a bit higher for me because I’m a human rain cloud, but the vast majority of police officers will go an entire career without ever firing their weapon in the line of duty. Yet every day we slide that Glock into the holster, load our magazines and strap on our body armor because every day we step into the unknown. I hope I never need that patrol rifle, but it’s comforting to know it’s there if the need ever arose.
Let’s rewind for a moment to 9:17AM on the morning of February 28, 1997 at 6600 Laurel Canyon Boulevard in California’s San Fernando Valley. It was at that moment that Larry Phillips Jr and Emil Mătăsăreanu rolled out the front door of the Bank of America intent on terror.
Phillips and Mătăsăreanu weren’t wielding “six shooters,” nor were they sporting colorful bandanas riding atop their trusty steeds–no, not quite. They were decked out in military grade body armor complete with black masks yanked down over their faces and humping a converted fully automatic AR-15 with two 100 round beta magazines, a semi automatic HK-91 rifle with 20 round mags, a Beretta 92FS Inox, and lest we forget, three converted fully automatic civilian model AK-47s with 100 round drum magazines and thirty round box mags.
Get lost in all those technical terms? I’ll sum it up for you. They had enough firepower to invade Luxembourg. The scene that unfolded was a twentieth century take on the “Shootout at the OK Corral” albeit on steroids. The poor LA cops who showed up didn’t stand a much better chance than if Wyatt Earp rode in with his six banger. It was Barney Fife versus Rambo. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fired over 1,100 rounds at police and innocent bystanders over the course of a bloody forty four minutes. The police were so severely outgunned they had march into a local gun shop and commandeer weapons to stand a fighting chance. The following excerpt was taken from a CNN article written the night of February 28, 1997 only hours after the shooting:
February 28, 1997 Web posted at: 11:10 p.m. EST
Police borrow guns, ammo from a gun shop
“Officers who initially responded to Friday’s robbery, carrying standard-issue 9 millimeter Baretta handguns, were in trouble.
“Tactically, the first officers that arrived were at a severe disadvantage,” weapons expert and former LAPD officer Dave Butler said. “Police carry 15 rounds. They would need to re-load.”
Stunned officers were out-gunned to such a degree that at one point they burst into a gun store, and walked out with more powerful guns and ammunition.
Police “came in a panic because their weapons weren’t good enough to fight these people,” said the store’s president, who would identify himself only as Bob.
“These people had body armor and they needed something that would break body armor,” he said. “We supplied them with slugs that would at least break bones on someone wearing body armor.”
Added the LAPD’s McBride: “We have many suspects who have multiple guns, and they continue to out-gun us and fire at us at will.” “
In stingingly stunning fashion, the North Hollywood shootout demonstrates the need for police to, at the very least, have access to the same type of weaponry that is readily available on the civilian market. Following the shootout, the LAPD secured a number of surplus M-16s from the Department of Defense and so began the trend that has become today’s 1033 program. Police department’s across the country, including my own, followed suit in an effort to ensure that we never again be caught off guard.
“In the days and years after the shootout, the LAPD secured surplus M-16s from the U.S. Department of Defense. And state legislators passed a law that allowed peace officers to purchase assault weapons — which were outlawed for civilians.
Some in the community still vividly remember the day and their role in the infamous shootout. Dr. Jorge Montes is a dentist who has a second-floor office across the street from the bank.
“I could re-enact it,” Montes said, telling how he gestured to two police officers who were shot to make their way up to his office so he could help them.
Montes, relying on first aid courses he had taken, was able to stabilize the two officers who made their way to him even as bullets rained into the office building and Montes’ van.
The day solidified his commitment to the neighborhood. “I love this community, and I’m part of its history,” Montes said. “I love my patients and I love this area.” “
Los Angeles Daily News
The aforementioned article was written just two years ago. Dr. Montes considers himself a ‘part of history,’ and he certainly is. As has been said, those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Since that fateful day in North Hollywood, from Aurora to Boston, we have learned our lesson in the law enforcement community. We must be prepared. If we can’t protect ourselves, we can’t protect you.
The public outcry over the police response to the Ferguson riots has churned up mass hysteria over what has been termed the “militarization” of our police forces. Our reactionary response is the new norm in this country. Something tragic occurs and we make rash decisions informed more by emotion than factual analysis. Every night on the news I saw the horrific images, heard the gunshots and saw the flashbangs and thought how sad it was that these events were playing out in our own country. It was an emotional event for everyone, but we can’t let our emotions take control. Let’s put the emotion aside for a minute and make sure we are asking the right questions. The question shouldn’t be “Do the police need this equipment?” it should be “How should the police use this equipment?” The North Hollywood shootout and countless other acts of madness clearly demonstrate the need for us to have the tools we need to do our job. At minimum, our level of force should be commensurate with weaponry that is available to the general public on the civilian market. If you can go to Walmart and buy an AR-15 what’s the trouble with highly trained police officers having access to the same equipment.
Armored vehicles being acquired through the 1033 program have also been a major sticking point. Many local departments have made excellent use of the humvees they have acquired and they’ve come in handy on numerous occasions from hurricanes to blizzards. To my knowledge, none of those departments use the humvee as a regular patrol vehicle. The more heavily armored vehicles are a necessity for SWAT teams. They use them when dealing with barricaded subjects, hostage situations and active shooter scenarios. The MRAPs that are being provided through the 1033 program are intimidating vehicles and should be used only by SWAT teams in clearly defined scenarios that require an additional level of protection. Let’s think about this logically, if a community has to spend $100,000 on a new armored vehicle for SWAT, why not just take the free one from the 1033 program and use that $100,000 to build a playground or fund an after school program? It’s a no brainer.
Canton is a member of the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council which is a conglomerate of communities that have pooled their resources. METRO provides logistical and personnel support to member agencies for use in a variety of situations. One of those resources is the METRO Swat team which does operate two “Bearcat” armored vehicles. The American Civil Liberties Union continues to express concern over what they consider to be the overuse of police swat teams in the execution of search warrants. They have some pretty damming numbers regarding the increased swat usage throughout the country. There could be a multitude of reasons for that and I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in Canton I’ve participated in numerous narcotics search warrants. I can only remember a few instances where the swat team was utilized and in those cases there was clear evidence regarding the presence of firearms in combination with persons with violent histories. If SWAT teams are being overused during the execution of no-knock warrants then that’s a discussion we need to have–but let’s be clear. The fact that a police department possesses this equipment and the manner in which they utilize it are two distinctly different topics. If there’s a problem with the way this stuff is being used, let’s fix it. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We can’t just axe a beneficial and cost saving program that benefits all because some departments are using their equipment in inappropriate situations.
The other day I was listening to a talk radio show on the way home from work. The host was discussing the 1033 program and she was talking to a caller who was trying to figure out why her small police department in the western part of the state had an armored vehicle sitting behind the station when the Boston Police Department doesn’t even have one. I couldn’t help but chuckle. Of course she’s wrong the Boston Police do have armored vehicles you just don’t see them all that much. If police departments want to see how it’s done, take a good look at the BPD. If you had the opportunity to attend either the 2014 Boston Marathon or this year’s 4th of July fireworks at the esplanade, you would have noticed it didn’t come close to resembling a police state–even in the wake of the marathon bombings. It’s not that the armored vehicles and swat teams weren’t available, they were, you just didn’t see them and that’s the way it should be.
In Canton we wear traditional police uniforms adorned with a patch that illustrates the rich history of our community and the bond we share with the people we serve. Effective communication and approachability are critical components to effective community policing. The use of military style uniforms and big guns should not have a place in everyday policing in the United States. The “us versus them” mentality that it fosters inhibits effective communication and severs community bonds with the police.
Unfortunately the fact remains that although the armored vehicles and AR-15s do not have a place in everyday policing, they do have a place. We have them for that one day. That one day when having that AR-15 will make all the difference in the world. That one day when that one screw ball wakes up and says “Today’s the day” and that monster walks into your child’s classroom or into that mall intent on harming your loved one. That’s the day you want us charging into that school or that mall with the tools we need to get the job done. I bet on that day you wouldn’t care if we drove a Sherman tank through the gymnasium with rocket launchers strapped to our chests. But, until that day, we’ll keep the Sherman in the garage and the rocket launcher in the attic and everyone can sleep just a little sounder knowing that we have the tools we need to get the job done.