Photos of officers bearing assault rifles and wearing head-to-toe battle armor this week in Ferguson, Mo., are raising questions over the blurred lines between police and soldiers.
Many look like they were snapped in an Afghanistan war zone, with local police in camouflage and combat helmets as they respond to unrest over the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson.
One picture features law enforcers staging behind a mine-resistant vehicle and launching tear gas grenades into a crowd of protestors and reporters. Others show police crouched in high positions, sniper-style, sighting through cross-hairs.
If you think only police in Missouri are highly militarized, think again.
Small towns all over the Midwest have access to a military-grade arsenal that includes shotguns and machine guns in addition to traditional 9mm sidearms and stun guns.
Take as an example Lorain County, Ohio, population 300,000, where two city police departments and the county sheriff each have their own Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.
Two of the $733,000 armored transports were gifted to local police earlier this year by the U.S. Army for use by SWAT forces.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the military has handed out literally tons of surplus equipment to police departments since 2006, including 435 armored vehicles, 533 planes, 93,763 machine guns, and 432 mine-resistant armored trucks.
The total price tag to taxpayers: $4.3 billion.
The big question is why military-grade firepower is needed in small towns where it has been embraced by authorities.
Lorain County Sheriff Phil Stammitti said there’s a good reason to have such hardware at his disposal.
“Criminals have (bulletproof) vests. Criminals have AR-15s. We have to have the firepower to counter that,” he said.
The 47,000-pound MRAP is for the protection of SWAT officers, who often face life-and-death situations, Stammitti said. For example, one of his men was shot during a LaGrange stand-off several years ago that involved an exchange of gunfire with the suspect.
Deputies aren’t taking high-powered weapons to standard domestic dispute calls, said Stammitti. They respond to force with force.
Bob Cornwell echoed those words. He is the executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association.
“We have to respond to what we’re confronted with,” he said.
Cornwell believes American society is more violent than ever. He cites the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, where 82 shootings resulted in 14 deaths.
FBI statistics on violent crime don’t back that idea, though.
The agency reported a 12.9 percent drop from 2008 to 2012, a trend that carried over a 10-year period as well. The numbers totaled murders, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
The homicide rate in the U.S. has dropped by half over the past 20 years, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.
Cornwell said those numbers only cover reported crimes, however. Law enforcement agencies should take “all necessary steps” to protect the peace.
Militarization of local police forces is not the way to do that, the ACLU said in a report published earlier this summer.
The group points to the 2010 death of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones. A SWAT team threw a flashbang grenade into her home while she was asleep, igniting her blanket. Then an officer burst into the house and shot her to death.
“Even if there were merit to the argument that training SWAT teams to think like soldiers in the context of a school shooting would provide them with the skills that they need to respond effectively, it appears that training in how to develop a ‘warrior’ mentality is pervasive and extends well beyond hostage situations and school shootings, seeping into officers’ everyday interactions with their communities,” the report said.
Despite the criticisms, Stammitti said he does not fear any risk of over-militarization in his department.
“We are quasi-military, I guess, because we use uniforms and follow a lot of procedures that are military-like,” he said Thursday. “But you don’t get into these jobs to kill people. That’s not what we’re here for.”
Whether the spectacle in Ferguson will prod a change in law enforcement methods remains to be seen.
Cornwell believes the strife there will likely be used as a case study of do’s and don’ts by the Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission.
— Jason Hawk is the editor in Lorraine County, Ohio.