September 17, 2007

Ambivalence About the War... in Miami.

Those lucky, helpless residents of Miami won't have to worry any more: their policeman will be carrying assault rifles.

Police Chief John Timoney approved the new policy last week, before a Miami-Dade police officer was killed in a shootout with an assault rifle-wielding suspect on Thursday.

"This is something we do not do with any relish. We do this reluctantly," Timoney said.

The policy had been under review for about a year due to officers seeing an increase in the weapons, Timoney said.

Officers interested in the guns will have to undergo two days of training and be certified to use the weapons. The police department doesn't yet have money to purchase the guns, and if officers want to use them now, they will have to pay for them, Timoney said.

Years ago, law enforcement specialists like SWAT teams were the only officers to carry assault weapons, but now even small town police agencies are expanding access to the AR-15, a civilian version of the military M-16 rifle.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I'm perfectly OK with the police having this sort of stuff in reserve (i.e., carrying it in the car) for when the you-know-what hits the fan. I don't like the idea of police being caught flat-footed any more than they do.

But I also have grave concerns about the ongoing militarization of police forces. In part because of the "War on Drugs", military equipment finds its way into police departments at an alarming rate, with even small town departments having more weapons than they really need.

Have you ever heard the old saying, "When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail?" I'm generally OK with the idea of SWAT teams -- I think there needs to be an intermediate level between patrol officers and calling in the Army. But how we train and equip our police officers affects how they visualize themselves. (If you don't believe me, howsabout we dress the officers of your department in frilly pink dresses and see what happens to morale?) If they are all wearing body armor and carrying assault weapons like the police in Robocop, how long before they start to see themselves as soldiers in a war? A former captian of the New Haven Police Department put it best, I think:

And since the end of the cold war, the military's giveaway of surplus hardware has proved irresistible to many SWAT teams. An amphibious armored personnel carrier was just picked up by the Boone County Sheriff's office in Indiana, and bayonets were recently accepted, then rejected, by the police in Los Angeles.

''I was offered tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted,'' said Nick Pastore, former Police Chief of New Haven. ''I turned it all down, because it feeds a mind-set that you're not a police officer serving a community, you're a soldier at war.''

And it's arguable that even the widespread use of SWAT teams has already had an effect on the self-image and behavior of police departments:

Over the last 25 years, America has seen a disturbing militarization of its civilian law enforcement, along with a dramatic and unsettling rise in the use of paramilitary police units (most commonly called Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT) for routine police work. The most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into the home.

These increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers.

So when I hear that Miami officers -- not just SWAT teams -- are going to be carrying around military-grade weaponry, I get a little nervous. There's got to be some threshold for using such weaponry, even if it's just "We're going out on patrol." But is that threshold going to be "People are shooting at us with an automatic weapon!" Will it be "People are shooting at us with a semi-automatic weapon!"

Will it be enough that a suspect in a building could have an assault weapon?

I get nervous because it's one thing to keep in the trunk for emergencies. It's another thing not to have your definition of "emergency" changed by the fact that you've got it in the trunk. This issue is something that I think deserves a little time and attention from all of us, as we all have neighborhoods, and we all have police departments.

Are the police at war? With whom? And if they are, how do we want to fight it? Is there really a war in Miami? Do we actually want to win? Are bigger guns the answer?

Maybe bigger guns are the answer, but at the end of the day, the training and care of police departments is our responsibility, an it is our responsibility to shape our communities, to answer those questions above. If we don't think hard about this, someone else is going to do it for us.

Posted by at September 17, 2007 12:37 PM | TrackBack

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What bothers me about this whole story is the use of the term "assault rifle." It sounds like a technical term, but it largely translates to "scary gun." While there are legal definitions, they are rarely used. So we have guns like the M1 Carbine or SKS, which aren't assault rifles by any legal definiton, but which are called assault rifles by the press.

Posted by: Jeff the Baptist at September 17, 2007 02:10 PM