SALT LAKE CITY — A new poll shows most Utahns support local police departments having access to military equipment, despite high-profile cases of aggressive police action nationwide that have called the practice into question.
A poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates for UtahPolicy.com found that 56 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat supported police departments using military equipment. Thirty-one percent said they were strongly or somewhat opposed.
The question of local police departments using military gear brought heated debate following the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer and the show-of-force response by police during many nights of protest by residents.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said just by the nature of what police officers do and how departments operate, similarities between the police and military will exist.
"We are a quasi-military organization just by the nature of our command structure and how we do business. That's policing in the United States," he said.
However, Burbank is opposed to outfitting his officers to look like another branch of the military.
"I don't think we should look like the military or an invading force," he said. "We're not at war with the public."
The big difference between the military and local police, Burbank said, is one group has a job of defending, while the other has a job of protecting.
"The police are not defending. Our role is not defense, like the military. Our role is protection. And I'll give you my kind of definition: When you look at defense, that comes down to whoever is on the other side that is a threat, to eliminate that threat. Whereas a protection role, we have people who are a threat to our community daily. We also strive to protect them as well and to minimize our use of force," he said.
Although police have to use deadly force at times, Burbank said terms like "acceptable loss rate" do not apply in local police strategy.
"There is no acceptable rate, and that includes the suspect on the other side," he said.
The Utah Policy poll also found that 41 percent of Utahns say police departments have become too much like the military, while the same number disagree.
When asked what kind of threat would justify local police departments using military weapons and equipment, the poll showed no one answer had an overwhelming majority of votes. Utahns said riots, terrorists, heavily armed threats and hostage situations would be scenarios where military-type force would be appropriate. Fourteen percent of respondents said there was no justifiable scenario for using military-like force.
Burbank noted there would be scenarios where the equipment used by both military and police would be similar, whether it was intended to be or not. Military equipment, he said, includes radios and communication devices in addition to handguns and rifles.
But having that equipment, using it and how that equipment is applied are all different scenarios, he said.
One piece of equipment Burbank said he will not add to his fleet is a military-issued armored vehicle.
"I don't believe that everyone should own a tank that they're rolling out for show and tell," he said.
Likewise, Burbank doesn't want his non-SWAT officers wearing heavy ballistic equipment on the outside of their uniforms or officers wearing helmets to a robbery call.
But that doesn't mean the chief wants to keep all military equipment out of his department. If the department needs a certain type of rifle and the military is willing to give them to him because it has a surplus, Burbank asked whether the department turn it down just because it comes from the military.
Some of the weapons used by local police departments in Utah come from a Department of Defense program that transferred billions of dollars' worth of surplus military equipment to state and local agencies.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said the Unified Police Department has an armored truck it recently obtained from the military. But it is to be used for "rescue-oriented" scenarios in conjunction with the fire department in situations, for instance, where someone is shooting at people. He said it would be used for defensive purposes.
How police agencies use the weaponry at their disposal comes down to "common sense," Winder said.
The survey was of 406 likely voters and was conducted Aug. 26-28. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
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