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Join the discussion: Have local police become too militarized?

Published: Monday, Aug. 18 2014 7:25 p.m. MDT

A law enforcement officer watches Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, as tear gas is fired to disperse a crowd protesting the shooting of teenager Michael Brown last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. Brown's shooting in the middle of a street following a suspected robbery of a box of cigars from a nearby market has sparked a week of protests, riots and looting in the St. Louis suburb.

Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

Following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot to death by a local police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, those protesting what they consider to be racially charged police brutality have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets and police officers wearing camouflage, according to NPR.

“Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors?” asked Walter Olson of the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank. “Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that ‘We rolled lighter than that in an actual war zone’ ”?

Olson is not the only one to question the militarization of local police forces.

“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, as quoted by Politico.

The military equipment comes from a Defense Department program that distributes “billions of dollars worth of surplus military equipment” to police forces across the country, Jonathan Topaz of Politico wrote. Some think the program should be ended completely, while others think it only needs more restrictions.

“Certain resources are designed and manufactured for a military mission — and it should stay that way,” House Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter said to Politico. “I don’t have a problem with the program overall, but I’m not comfortable with the idea that equipment designated for the battlefield could have a community application.”

While the events in Ferguson have popularized the idea of stopping the militarization of local police forces, Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic wrote a reminder that the American people have been mostly supportive of heavily armed police until very recently.

“Prior to this week's events in Ferguson and the press' unusual response to them, most police officers received from their subculture and American culture generally the most counterproductive message possible: that extreme aggression and overt militarization confers upon them safety, respect, and esteem,” he wrote. “In fact, it has allowed them to tap into the esteem previously reserved for U.S. troops. Policemen doing so quickly became normalized in scenes playing out across the country, mostly unnoticed.”

The trend has been in the making for a long time, Friedersdorf wrote. As a people, we need to decide whether we value police for their ability to keep the community safe, or how they look when holding semiautomatic weapons, he went on.

“There are training methods, cultural conceits, and a martial culture that America uses to surround those we send abroad to kill declared enemies,” he wrote. “And when police departments and officers adopted that same culture to prepare and surround those meant to protect and serve on America's streets, we thought it was cool.”

Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2

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