Not so long ago, most Americans would have been appalled to see police officers carrying military-grade weaponry, responding to crime scenes in vehicles designed to withstand mortar attacks. Such brutal displays of state power were reserved, we thought, for authoritarian regimes that regarded every citizen as a potential threat.
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, by the police of Ferguson, Missouri, there have been calls to reassess the arms race that has been taking place in police departments around the country. More Americans should read The New York Times. Nearly a year ago, before the issue was on anyone’s radar, the newspaper took note of the transformation of many police agencies into virtual paramilitary organizations.
This page—indeed, this newspaper—has been very tough on the Times when we feel as though the newspaper has fallen short. But that criticism is born of love. Like all well-informed New Yorkers, we rely on The New York Times to help form our worldview. The Times piece of October 11, 2013, which noted that police departments were buying up armored vehicles from the Department of Defense, was a terrific piece of insightful reporting. And it enables us to view the events in Ferguson through an educated lens.
The details in the Times piece, written by Benjamin Preston, showed just how eagerly law-enforcement agencies have embraced the concept of military-style policing. Mr. Preston noted that the Ohio State University Police Department recently added a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle to its fleet. Sure, the price was right—the agency obtained the surplus vehicle for free from the Defense Department. But it’s fair to wonder, now more than ever, why a university police department would want or need a military-style anti-ambush vehicle.
This is a decidedly un-American trend. As Naomi Wolf and other activists have been pointing out since the tragic events in Ferguson, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was passed specifically to draw bright lines between the military personnel and a domestic police force, which is accountable to mayors and governors.
There’s no question that since 9/11, police departments in major cities, including our own, require special training and equipment. Places like Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal, Times Square and the entrances to tunnels and bridges require an aggressive show of force.
But why, exactly, do the police departments in Yuma, Arizona, and Coffeyville, Kansas—also cited in the Times piece—require combat-tested armored vehicles? And why are so many police officers acting as if they are an occupying army rather than enforcers of the law?
Only now are we beginning to search for answers. Kudos to The New York Times for identifying this problem long before it became part of our national discussion.