hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial September 2014



Blurring the dividing line between police, soldiers


It’s hard to imagine the circumstances that would prompt the president of the United States to dispatch military troops to keep order in our peaceful, mostly rural region of New England and upstate New York.

It could happen, of course, but most of us assume it would only happen in the event of some incredible civil disturbance or natural disaster, something many orders of magnitude worse than Hurricane Irene. Any lesser threshold for sending in the troops would be a shock, because in our open, democratic society, there is a well-justified distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home.

Yet one can’t help but feel, after reading our cover story this month, that in some sense military forces are already being amassed in our region – through transfers of wartime weapons and gear to local police agencies.

As the story details, under programs set up in the 1990s “war on drugs” and expanded in the name of counterterrorism after 9/11, local police forces have obtained everything from assault rifles to night-vision goggles, armored Humvees and military helicopters. Last year, the Pentagon even gave the Warren County Sheriff’s Office a 19-ton, mine-resistant armored personnel carrier.
To be fair, it’s possible to conjure up scenarios in which police could put some of this equipment to good use and perhaps even save lives. In this era of mass shootings, for example, it might be handy to have a vehicle that’s able to withstand sustained fire from a high-caliber rifle, as Warren County’s mine-resistant vehicle can. That vehicle, which can slog through 3 feet of standing water, also might serve a rescue function in the event of another Irene, though it’s too heavy for some roads.

Lest any readers get the wrong impression, let’s be clear about one thing: The Warren County Sheriff’s Office is no rogue agency; to the contrary, it has long been known in the region for its high standard of professionalism.

But not every police agency is so well run, and military gear is flowing to local police forces regardless of their size or level of training. Around the country, the Pentagon has given some of its mine-resistant vehicles to police departments with fewer than 10 full-time officers.

It’s not hard to imagine how some of this equipment could wind up being abused, even in Warren County. After all, when a police agency has an armored vehicle in reserve for that mass-shooter situation it hopes will never arise, there’ll be a temptation to use it to make a show of force in more routine cases like drug busts.

In fact, in interviews for our story, several law enforcement officials around the region explained the value of military equipment primarily in terms of its potential to intimidate suspects, particularly in drug cases.

Much of the military equipment being acquired by local police agencies is arriving through the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 program, in which the surplus equipment is free. And because it’s free, many agencies are acquiring things that they’d never be able to justify through their normal budget process. Those acquisitions are blurring the important line between civilian policing and the military.

Soldiers are trained to be warriors, but the main job of domestic police is to keep the peace. So just as we would not want our military patrolling our streets in all but the most extreme circumstances, we should not want our police to take on the gear and posture of combat.