WORDS: 3,553 — To protect Main Street, USA it seems the Pentagon will support your local sheriff in armoring up Adam-12 with battlefield-grade equipment.. just in case the local citizenry gets out of hand. Here’s my observations on the Pentagon’s “Army-Navy Surplus Store” to law enforcement, and some thoughts on monitoring demonstrations before the need for riot control.
Back in 2014 I had my first blog and among the long forgotten (and marginally interesting) posts I made was about the seeming proliferation of police departments getting bargain-priced surplus military battlefield equipment from the Pentagon. The following is a re-post from December 16th of that year. The reason I am “doing this again” is an inspiration from a post recently made by blog buddy, chuq, over at Lobertero.com. .. where he addresses this subject as it pertains to Biden’s efforts (or lack thereof) to control some of this. More on his post a bit later. For now here’s my original post from 2014… a different, but not so different time (also keep in mind that I am far older although likely not much wiser than in 2014).
The recent police shooting events and subsequent demonstrations across the country have let loose a cornucopia of social issues and among them is the idea that maybe the police departments of the country are a tad too “militarized” in the way they not only handle riot control but equip themselves to do so. As the fingers get pointed around in all directions one point of contention has been the federal government’s program, administered through the Pentagon, of distributing military surplus equipment to local law enforcement, is not as discriminating as it could be in verifying a need for certain equipment by a specific police department making a request, as well as providing adequate training for the use of some of the more specialized military hardware. Given the images of militarized police units in Ferguson dispersing the crowds looking like something from a neo-fascist Orwellian movie, there’s seems to be a little more at play here than just cops with tanks.
I think it’s all about mindset; trying to focus on the immediate problem in a way that presents an image of authority for public safety rather than oppression of civil rights. I am not a social scientist nor law enforcement psych researcher, but let’s explore a bit the structure of any sort of public demonstration that has the potential for turning into a crowd control problem for the police from some level of common sense.
Breaking It Down (or Busting It Up)
There are some basic “un-scientific” facts prevalent with all public demonstrations. Whether the demonstration is organized and designed to be peaceful by well-intentioned Americans exercising their First Amendment rights, any demonstration is designed to be a release of emotions and personal passions toward something. Given that,
- …any demonstration is about public image. It’s done to play to the press and the public… because it is in fact a public demonstration of citizens presenting their cause… publicly. They are making a “noise” for their cause. The subject of the demonstration can be benign or very volatile. Sometimes organizations will present a peaceful surface to a demonstration knowing full well those opposing will become so impassioned as to cause violence, thus playing into the “being victimized” response the so-called peaceful demonstrators wanted all along. Some demonstrations are not organized, some are impromptu, many look to taunt or goad authorities into impulsive responses just for the cameras.
- …there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with the point being presented by that demonstration and even those opposing people exercising their rights on the sidelines could change the tone of an otherwise peaceful demonstration.
- …there is a good chance that others who disagree with the demonstration or the demonstration’s theme, or simply have anarchist intentions toward civil chaos for political ends, could show up to turn the demonstration into a form of destructive civil disobedience.
- …police will not be able to tell the difference in the crowd of people who are peaceful from people who are there to disrupt the demonstration and cause a threat to public safety and personal property, therefore, anyone can be an injured victim of the rioting itself or from the police trying to regain control.
- …the police are pawns in this public theater (and “theater” is exactly what it is) yet they become major players, and ultimately the villains as well because in this country we abhor even the suggestion of an image of militarized authority with batons, tear gas, and armored personnel carriers trying to break up crowds of civilians. “That happens in Third World countries, not here”, we think to ourselves. It doesn’t matter if citizens in the background of those images are looting the local Walmart, burning vehicles, or throwing Molotov cocktails at the police.
Historical Sidebar –Few people know about the origin of the Molotov cocktail. You may recall that in the beginning of WW2 the Germans and the Soviet Union were buddies on the same side (this changed later when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941). This was forged in 1939 by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact… named after then Soviet foreign minister Molotov and German (Nazi) foreign minister Ribbentrop. Along with the non-aggression agreement the pact contained a secret arrangement whereby the Soviets would invade Finland for their own ambitions. When the invasion started Molotov put off any bad press by saying that the alleged cluster bombs the Finns were saying the Russians were dropping on them were actually food and humanitarian supplies to help the Finns. In response to the invading Russian military the Finns fought back, often using gasoline in glass bottles with a rag stuffed in as a kind of fuse. They nicknamed these “Molotov cocktails: a drink to go with the food”. Molotov despised the reference but had to live with it through modern world history up until the day he died in 1986 at the age of 96. (Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov_cocktail )
Now the police have to weigh their response to the ever changing and very dynamic phases of any demonstration. Is it simply a response requiring a measure of crowd control to maneuver the demonstrators on both sides toward certain streets or areas of least effect to the public? Should the response be more a forceful physical presence to deter potential violent elements in the crowd? Should the response be to disperse the crowd to avoid impending violence toward public and private property? Or should the response be a full dispersing of all crowds to quell violent protests, full blown rioting and the destruction of property and threat to personal safety, using smoke, chemicals, and/or safe projectiles? It’s very easy to understand that any police department confronted with such demonstrations can pass through those phases within a matter of minutes or hours. The police themselves could be reacting to a situation from just minutes before rather than what might be happening at the moment. Lines get blurred, crowd dynamics change, on-scene authority changes from moment to moment. Riots take on a life of their own. It isn’t a giant leap to understand the desire of police departments to want armored vehicles and heavier firepower to be able to try and retain control of what can be uncontrollable civil unrest (or attacks from zombies after the apocalypse; uh huh.).
A Lesson Learned?
But perhaps the one event that rather galvanized police department thinking toward heightened armor and firepower for its officers was that event back in North Hollywood in 1997. Two bank robbers, wearing body armor and carrying automatic weapons held off under-equipped patrol officers for 44 minutes. Here is what Wiki says…
“Local patrol officers at the time were typically armed with their standard issue 9 mm or .38 Special pistols, with some having a 12-gauge shotgun available in their cars. Phillips and Mătăsăreanu carried illegally modified fully automatic Norinco Type 56 S-1s, a Bushmaster XM15 Dissipator, and a HK-91 rifle with high capacity drum magazines and ammunition capable of penetrating vehicles and police Kevlar vests. The bank robbers wore body armor which successfully deflected bullets and shotgun pellets fired by the responding patrolmen. SWAT eventually arrived bearing sufficient firepower, and they commandeered an armored truck to evacuate the wounded. Several officers also appropriated AR-15 rifles from a nearby firearms dealer. The incident sparked debate on the need for patrol officers to upgrade their capabilities in similar situations in the future.” (read it here… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Hollywood_shootout )
After this nightmare event for the L.A. police things started to change regarding bringing the street cop up to matching the armament and body armor protection available to perpetrators.
Couple this event with the “war on drugs” mindset passed down to local police from the Federal level, with possible gang and cartel confrontations, it all has likely fed the desire for surplus military equipment and the shift toward municipality-run paramilitary rapid response forces.. the evolution of what was traditional SWAT. While one might accept a certain amount of this in large urban areas a variety of military gear is finding its way into more rural county and small town America police departments; places not likely to find their communities in the middle of civil riots, open cartel drug wars, or gang turf battles.
The Need Is… Where?
Some of this equipment is really beyond the scope of what most (if not all) police departments might need. The Pentagon has given out tanks (with cannons), land mine-resistant armored vehicles, grenade launchers, land mine detectors, and machine guns. Now, Pentagon-released personal tactical gear seems more palatable; night vision equipment, pistol belts, camo gear, holsters, Kevlar helmets, etc., those things seem to make a level of sense. Bottom line, cops are showing up at demonstrations dressed ready for bear and for many the image itself is intimidating but not in the way crowds used to think… meaning, better break up or this long line of police will break YOU up. Now the crowds perceive the long line of military-equipped police look more like an oppressing army of Darth Vaders out to circumvent the First Amendment… which then encourages from the demonstrators other passions and emotions into an already volatile mix.
This is a new age; one where image means everything, news travels at the speed of sending texts, and a once-peaceful crowd can turn into a seething mob for the least little perceived provocation or infraction of authoritarian control. Most importantly, everyone has to play for the camera… er, cameras, and everyone has a camera.. the media and the demonstrators, and the world is the audience to pass judgement. Piss off the viewing audience enough and they complain to their political leaders and make demands, and then before you know it, the President has to weigh in, bowing to political pressure and opinion polls. Then the lawmakers step in because everyone thinks “there outta be a law!”. A publicity nightmare for everyone, from the cause being presented by the demonstrators right up to the President of the United States. In the end this big knee-jerk only hurts the public.
The Public Perception
As you might expect I have some modest thoughts….
* Police riot control image – Many urban municipalities dress their cops up in that nice black SWAT-looking gear. Well, the problem with that is when you are confronting demonstrators in a regimented line it looks like any number of Hollywood movies of some variant of Big Brother fascist storm trooper oppression. Covering the face (under the helmet) so as not to be facially recognized is a contemporary image of a Mid East Al Quada or ISIS terrorist. I mean, c’mon… the demonstrators are going to want to fight back… or in the least be more resistant. Here’s another odd thing.. there’s a pic showing the Ferguson police at night trying to disperse a crowd with the usual tear gas. What are they wearing? Desert camouflage uniforms. Desert camo in Ferguson, MO?! At least the black BDU’s made some sense color-wise, for nighttime urban cover and concealment operations. Did the Ferguson PD get a Pentagon uniform freebie leftover from Desert Storm or something? Here’s my suggestion. For riot control purposes have the police wear some color that does NOT encourage a military assault image or storm troopers. Cover and concealment means little in riot control. Take an example from the United Nations soldiers. Those guys wear blue helmets.. and their armored vehicles are painted all white. It keeps them non-threatening to all sides in a given conflict and easily recognizable on the battlefield.
* Do you really need tanks or those MRAP armored vehicles? MRAP means, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected. The question is… are the threats to police in urban areas or small towns (yes, MRAP vehicles have ended up in small communities) consistent with land mines and fear of armor-piercing ambush? Just WHO or what is the threat to police that requires these behemoths? They gotta be expensive to operate and repair. But besides that, these things, just sitting there, look like they were intended for use in the apocalypse. The only thing these things are going to do on a city street is look like an invading army. Seems to me all any urban police department might need is maybe one of those smaller armored personnel carriers with the battering ram for knocking down doors and busting holes in buildings in support of regular SWAT operations. Other than that, why not just get a few regular armored trucks of the kind used by Brinks. Outfit them with the little perks for riot control. Those don’t look militarily intimidating in a police line.. and they are bullet-proof all around. Yes, they aren’t going to take a direct hit from a terrorist RPG (rocket propelled grenade)… but there’s not many RPG’s in America where that threat has any merit.
Less threats and more arrests – Ok, I don’t pretend to know more than the police nor do I have a law degree to understand all the things police departments can and can not do in riot control, but here’s a thought from a layman. Forget the tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades. Have a truck with public address loudspeakers inform the demonstrators that they have now passed the line of being peaceful and they are violating public safety and destroying property. They have five minutes to disperse or be arrested. After the five minutes have passed you begin marching the police lines forward, followed by buses or similar vehicles, and when they come across a demonstrator who has defied the police order to disperse you grab him (or her), pass them to the back of the line where they are promptly placed in a vehicle and subsequently to a confinement facility for arrest processing. Forget all the “dispersing the crowd” tactical weaponry garbage. Make the announcement to disperse only once then start arresting. Obviously an urban police department would have made some advance precautionary preparedness plans on a location for holding large numbers of people for arrest processing in the event of civil disobedience situations.
All Purchases Are Final?
Now, to the credit of certain police departments, some have tried to return some of this unnecessary and ridiculous military equipment back to the Pentagon, and that has spawned a bureaucratic mess of sort. The military has little or no procedure in place for accepting returns. Here is a quote from an article published on the Mother Jones website.
In the past eight years, the Pentagon program has loaned local law enforcement some 200,000 ammunition magazines, 94,000 machine guns, and thousands of armored vehicles, rifles, aircraft, land mine detectors, silencers, and grenade launchers—all at the request of the local agencies themselves. But images of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, of police in military gear cracking down on peaceful protesters, have turned many communities against a program critics say has eroded the line between police officers and soldiers. Recently, in response to the local outcry over aggressive policing tactics, San Jose, California’s police department announced plans to return its mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP), and the Los Angeles school system police department has agreed to return its three grenade launchers. (Ref: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/09/police-departments-struggle-return-pentagon-military-surplus-gear ).
Balancing Progress With Need
Yes, there has been some progress in the last 40 years, since the Days of Rage of the 60’s in handling civil disobedience. Remember the old photos and film footage of the black civil rights marches in the South when the police used to rush into the crowd and start beating away everywhere and using water cannon? Or how about the 1968 Democratic National Convention when the Chicago Police, only in helmets… no fancy riot gear… just ran into the crowds of “hippie” protesters and started clubbing away. I think as a nation we’ve gotten over that riot control nonsense. But we have a way to go. It seems we need to change riot control strategy from crowd dispersing to making arrests for civil disobedience and not listening to police lawful orders.
So what can urban police departments use if not all the military hardware they can get is free from the government? Well, see, that’s the checks & balances provided by sticking to budgets and having to justify purchases with public tax dollars as compared to the freebies from Uncle Sam just because he’s giving stuff away. Yeah, no question it’s cool stuff, to be sure. But is it really necessary to do the job or does it amount to overkill? Sure, it saves public expense for having to purchase these vehicles and weapons but the public has no say so if they want their police department to have them. And when you are using all this cool military stuff for the public good does the image it portrays to the public… for the public good? Don’t get me wrong here. Some military vehicles may find a purpose in law enforcement. A military Humvee may have a real practical use for law enforcement in rural counties that have large expanses of open land to cover, but does such a vehicle make sense in Chicago or New York City? The things are not generally armored-up when given to law enforcement as they might have been in Afghanistan. Let’s look at the tracked armored personnel carrier (see pic below). Does Bellingham, Mass. (only 16,000 people??) really need one of these things? The only application I can think of for this vehicle is maybe for traversing snow, but… the tracks are not wide enough in some snow areas, like Alaska. Again, maybe the large counties and states with varied terrains. For urban use? You tell me.
If any police department elects to not use military equipment provided by the Pentagon there are, in fact, companies out there who do sell law enforcement versions of many vehicles that have armor sufficient for civilian law enforcement operations. These things (note some of the pics below) have a military feel to them but are nothing like their large and imposing military cousins bristling with gun turrets, gun ports, tank treads, and sometimes a cannon poking out. But these items are expensive. Procedure calls for someone in the cop shop preparing a proposal for the money to purchase the item. Then that proposal goes to the local city council for debate (or in the case of county, the county board; state police have to go to the state legislature). If it makes sense and the expense is justified and a vote passes, the police get what they want. This is the way it should be. In fact, if there isn’t already such a law, I would think that any donation to any police department must have approval for acceptance from the local governing body and not just the local police commissioner. If the Pentagon gives a tracked armored personnel carrier to the local police then approval should go before the city council not only to accept the vehicle based on a need justification but also to make sure there are funds allocated for training on how to drive that thing… and for ongoing maintenance and putting fuel in that gas hog. If there is no money for training and the extras then the vehicle cannot be accepted. That’s how it should work. It makes the police responsive to the community.
Here’s a few cop toys for the future…
Our tax dollars at work.
“After more than a year in office, Joe Biden may finally take action on police militarization.”