SALT LAKE CITY — Helmeted officers in camouflage and sharpshooters with automatic weapons atop a heavily armored vehicle descended on a small Missouri town this week to quell demonstrations against the police shooting of an unarmed teenager.
By some accounts, the show of force — including the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets — more resembled an invading army than local law enforcement. And it triggered a nationwide debate about the "militarization" of police departments.
Police agencies in Utah have some of the same weapons and vehicles as those on display in Ferguson. Some were acquired from the Department of Defense program that has transferred billions of dollars' worth of surplus military equipment to state and local agencies, which has now come under sharp criticism.
"I don't deny that the look and feel can seem militarized. It's a style that we have embraced," said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.
But, Winder said, how police agencies use the weaponry at their disposal comes down to "common sense," something he says seems to be lacking in the Missouri situation.
"Here, I can't even envision a time where we would do such a thing," he said.
West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said police have had to change their posture since 9/11. In the years that followed, he said, the government made available lots of militaristic weapons and vehicles so police agencies could be prepared for an event that requires their use.
"But it's a balancing act for us between being a community police department and an entity than literally can respond and defend them against a level of greater attack, whether it's a domestic attack or an international terrorism incident," he said.
The best way to deal with the issue is before a problem or incident happens, Russo said. Open communication among police, community leaders and residents is the key to not only understanding each other but also building trust and confidence, he said.
Russo said life imitates Hollywood and, in this case, the 1987 movie "RoboCop" where police donned battle dress uniforms, exterior ballistic vests and helmets.
"Lo and behold, here we are 20 or 30 years later and we're starting to see our uniforms out here in the real world look very much like that and us have a posture very much like that," he said.
That's why, Russo said, it's incumbent on police administrators to continually remind their officers that they're service providers, that they're here to help protect and honor the rights of residents.
The Davis County Sheriff's Office is among several Utah police agencies that owns an armored vehicle known as a BearCat. Sheriff Todd Richardson said it's used to protect officers in situations such as when a gunman has barricaded himself in a home.
"The general public will never see this type of equipment coming out against them," Richardson said.
The Unified Police Department, which Winder oversees, has an armored truck it recently obtained from the military. The sheriff said it would be a "rescue-oriented" vehicle used in conjunction with the fire department in situations, for instance, where someone is shooting at people. He said he sees that type of equipment as defensive, not offensive.
"I'm extremely sensitive to the realities that are present today," Winder said. "The thing I do not want to do is offend our community."
The Washington Post this week highlighted Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank's handling of the removal of Occupy Salt Lake protesters from Pioneer Park in 2011. Burbank and his officers showed up in everyday uniforms, not riot gear as police in other cities had.
Most of the 200 protesters left voluntarily, and some allowed the police to help them with their belongings. Nineteen chose to be arrested, but there was no rioting or violence.
“I just don’t like the riot gear,” Burbank told the Post. “Some say not using it exposes my officers to a little bit more risk. That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says, ‘Throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important. If one side overreacts, then it all falls apart.”
Contributing: Mike Anderson