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Senate committee will discuss federal equipment for local law enforcement

A Senate committee will look at the increased use of military-type gear by civilian law enforcement on Sept. 9
A Senate committee will look at the increased use of military-type gear by civilian law enforcement on Sept. 9
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will meet on Tuesday, Sept. 9 to discuss federal, programs that have equipped state and local law enforcement agencies with military-type equipment, an issue that erupted in the middle of the protests following the shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., the committee announced yesterday.

The Staten Island Advance published an editorial this morning that observed, “Main Street is no place for the weapons and machines of war. But the needless militarization of police departments in cities across the country has been going on for decades.”

Earlier this week, former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, now the director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, published an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times that noted, among other things, “As a nation, we have tended to acquiesce and relinquish some of our sacred constitutional rights in favor of the perception of improved safety and security. Constitutional rights are now viewed by many, including police, as an impediment to the public-safety mission.

“Sadly,” Rahr continued, “we seem to have forgotten that protecting constitutional rights — the foundation of our democracy — is the mission of our police. The images being broadcast from Ferguson, Mo., of peace officers clad in military-style uniforms using equipment designed for modern warfare, serve as an impetus for public-safety leaders and political leaders to pause and assess the state of American police culture.”

“The fundamental issue is not the equipment — it’s the philosophy, policies and protocols directing its use,” the former sheriff added. “The equipment has been relatively easy to acquire, but carefully considered protocols have not. It’s time for law-enforcement and political leaders to step up and develop policies and protocols for the wise use of this valuable and sometimes necessary equipment, and more important, to address the culture that will determine acceptance of new model policies. Developing those policies will be relatively simple. Addressing the culture is tougher.”

Earlier this year, KING 5 News, in a story about how Rahr has made some eye-opening changes at the police academy, revealed that “Rahr removed a trophy case containing badges, batons and other 'tools of the trade' from the lobby. In its place, she put up a mural of the U.S. Constitution.”

She brought that up during a conversation earlier this week with this column. Perhaps the Senate Committee should hear from Rahr when it convenes in 11 days.

St. Louis Gun Rights Examiner Kurt Hofmann wrote about what happened in nearby Ferguson from an up-close-and-personal perspective on Aug. 15. He discussed what has come to represent a “government monopoly on force” as envisioned by the gun prohibition lobby, and how that was not passing the smell test, as journalists were tear gassed and citizens found themselves literally in the crosshairs.

Keeping things in perspective, police and sheriffs’ deputies have among the toughest jobs there are. They deal with people in their worst moments, sometimes repeatedly, and occasionally with terminal results. They frequently witness the aftermath of human depravity, and then they go home and try to either make sense of it, or block it from their consciousness while they try to carry on a conversation with a spouse or child.

All that said, police are not the military, they are civilian law enforcement. And the militarization of local police departments is alarming an increasing number of citizens on both sides of the political spectrum.

If the Senate panel can sort through this, good luck with that. Perhaps Rahr’s new training approach just might be worthy of their attention.