When you're on the battlefield you do have an enemy, and that's your goal to go after your enemy. When you're working in your community, that's not the same thing. The people that you are serving are not necessarily your enemy, and when you are outfitting yourself and acting as if they are, that can create problems in terms of policing. —Marina Lowe, ACLU of Utah legislative and policy counsel
SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers defended Utah police agencies arming themselves with military surplus weapons and vehicles Wednesday, while critics of the trend say the equipment tells communities that police view them as the enemy.
Also, the state coordinator for the federal program that makes the equipment available gave the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee a 45-page list of items police have acquired, including hundreds of M-16 and M-14 rifles and six Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said officers need the same arms that criminals and gangbangers have if they're going to protect people on the street.
"I think we have to match the firepower that the other side has or we're at a distinct disadvantage and we put public safety at risk," he said.
But Marina Lowe, ACLU of Utah legislative and policy counsel, said the "militarization" of police departments creates incentives for them to unnecessarily use aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield.
"When you're on the battlefield you do have an enemy, and that's your goal to go after your enemy. When you're working in your community, that's not the same thing. The people that you are serving are not necessarily your enemy, and when you are outfitting yourself and acting as if they are, that can create problems in terms of policing," she said.
Utah Highway Patrol Col. Daniel Fuhr said Lowe hasn't had a bullet go 2 inches over her head or felt the fire of a Molotov cocktail thrown at her feet.
"Until you feel that, you don't understand why these pieces of equipment are so important," he said.
Fuhr said police officers should never be made to feel ashamed of the gear they carry to protect themselves.
"I will never send a person out there unequipped for fear of the media getting after me or the ACLU. I'd much rather fear knocking on the front door of a police officer and telling his or her husband or wife they will never return home because I didn't have the courage to do what was right. I won't do that," he said.
Lowe said the Department of Defense has a "use it or lose it" policy with the surplus equipment that local police agencies acquire. Police feel pressure to use the gear because they have to return it if it's not used within the first year, she said.
Fuhr said there's no such pressure and that the federal government has not asked about the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle that UHP obtained in February.
Rep. Dana Layton, R-Orem, said she appreciates the fear of militarization of police. But she said it's great that police departments with limited budgets have access to the equipment they need.
More than the weapons is the attitude police have about using them, she said, adding she hopes police don't lose the vision to serve and protect.
On Tuesday, two members of Congress introduced a bill designed to curb the militarization of local police departments.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, would prohibit police from receiving weapons such as grenade launchers, armored vehicles and attack drones. It would also do away with the requirement that local agencies use the military equipment within a year of getting it.
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