Recalibrating police arsenals

Aug. 25, 2014 @ 07:07 PM

Photos and video footage of police in Ferguson, Missouri, confronting their citizens with high-powered assault rifles, armored vehicles and other military gear has ignited a national debate, and appropriately so.

Why do those scenes from Ferguson seem more like what we would expect to see from Baghdad or Kandahar? When did police departments begin go resemble frontline infantry companies?

As it turns out, Ferguson cops are far from alone in being outfitted that way. Even here in the Durham area, police and sheriff’s departments have been the beneficiaries of U.S. Department of Defense largess in amping up the firepower of local law enforcement.

Fortunately, for reasons apparently ranging from sound judgment to an absence of any real need for the equipment, we’ve seen little deployment of the military gear here. For the most part, as Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez put it last week, the weapons have tended to languish unused in the department’s armory.

Area departments stressed to The Herald-Sun’s Lauren Harsch last week that while the equipment seldom sees action, officers are trained to use the weapons and practice with them on the firing range.

That at least avoids a situation that, according to The New York Times, is fairly commonplace: Military weapons in the hands of police who have little understanding of how to safely and effectively use them. The sight of rows of Ferguson cops with assault rifles on their shoulders upset experienced officers with whom the Times talked.

“In recent days, retired military officers have bristled at the sight of police offices in Missouri walking the streets with guns drawn, pointed at protesters,” The Times’ Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt reported. “‘In the infantry, we teach “muzzle awareness,” said Paul D. Eaton, a retired general. ‘Their fingers are off the trigger….the barrel is either straight down or no higher than a 45-degree angle.’”

The flood of military weaponry to local police departments was a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Given those events and the emotions they spawned, few have publicly questioned the heavy arming of local law enforcement.

And there’s no doubt some of the equipment has had value. Durham police converted donated M-16s to semi-automatic weapons used, as spokeswoman Kammie Michael described it, in “particular circumstances. Police sharpshooters provide an additional resource when responding to situations involving heavily armed and dangerous suspects.”

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the federal programs. That is a sensible if long overdue move.

It’s apparent that local departments have already reached their conclusion: Most of the stuff is outdated, unnecessary and headed back whence it came.

And that’s a good thing.