Editorial: Cities should avoid militarizing police

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The events in Ferguson, Missouri, the past two weeks have raised questions about the use of force by police, as well as the proliferation of military-grade equipment in local police departments.

These are good questions to ask, and whether they prove relevant to the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson by police, the tragedy provides an opportunity to assess policing tactics.

Across the country, disturbing reports are coming in of overly aggressive law enforcement leading to needless deaths.

In New York, a man recently died from complications of asthma after being choked by police officers.

His crime was selling cigarettes on the street.

In Detroit, a little girl was shot in the head in 2010 after a SWAT team busted through the doors of her home, deployed a stun grenade and fired shots as they looked for a murder suspect.

What local communities should be asking is whether the growth of military-style equipment in police departments of all sizes is encouraging their use in situations that don’t demand such a heavy response.

The Homeland Security and Defense departments have been selling or donating surplus equipment to local police departments. The items include military-grade rifles, Humvees, assault vehicles and even rocket launchers.

But just because the sophisticated and lethal gear is available, and in many cases free, doesn’t mean local cops need it — or should take it.

This massive militarization of police departments could threaten civil liberties. Communities must be certain officers have the proper training to use the equipment, and clear guidelines are in place on how and when it can be used.

Other safeguards are also smart. For example, some departments are now requiring police officers to wear body-mounted cameras to record interactions with citizens.

That seems a prudent move.

And indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported after one year of mandating the cameras in Rialto, Calif., use of force by cops went down 60 percent and complaints against officers decreased 88 percent.

The nation also needs better tracking and data on the use of deadly force by police.

No such database currently exists, and very few police departments voluntarily report the information to the FBI.

The data could help determine if there is merit to the claims that young black males are being unfairly targeted by police.

While tanks and heavily-armored vehicles may be necessary for certain, extreme situations, military equipment should not be standard protocol in most communities.

The maintenance and training add unnecessary costs, and the temptation to deploy such gear is too great.

The practice of arming police departments with surplus military hardware has corresponded with a 1,400 percent increase in SWAT raids since the 1980s.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 79 percent of all SWAT raids are to investigate suspected drug possession in private buildings.

Too often, careless mistakes have led to the doors of innocent citizens being knocked down.

In the recent Ferguson incident that resulted in Michael Brown’s slaying, the details will hopefully be revealed during a fair and thorough investigation. Even if that probe determines the shooting was justified, the outrage it has triggered should be channeled into putting in place safeguards to make such incidents are less likely in the future.

And the focus on whether local police departments are overly militarized should lead to clear guidelines on how war-making equipment is deployed in America’s towns and cities.

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