Editorial: Military gear a balancing act for law enforcement
The images from Ferguson, Mo., over the past two weeks have been troubling on many levels.
The shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown raises a host of questions about the use of force by police and the impact of race in these tense, often split-second confrontations. Bits of information have leaked out but there is much the general public does not know about what happened on Saturday, Aug. 9, in the St. Louis suburb, and we hope the investigation currently underway will soon answer those questions.
But the response of local law enforcement to the protests and rioting that followed the shooting have produced a whole other debate about the increased militarization of local law enforcement in the United States. Interestingly, the concern has come from viewpoints as diverse as conservative Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to the American Civil Liberties Union.
It is an important discussion that the public and government need to have.
Without a doubt, the worldwide terrorism that came home to Americans on 9/11 has changed a lot of things. Local and state law enforcement now must be prepared for situations that we could not have imagined a few decades ago. Also, police continue to face more and more firepower from criminals on the street, from sophisticated weaponry to body armour.
Certainly police need to be adequately armed to deal with all of the possible dangers they face. But the trust of the public has to be considered as well.
Polls done in the wake of the Ferguson unrest show once again that there is a wide gap in the way Americans view police actions.
Last week, a Pew Center poll showed that about 33 percent of whites say police response in Ferguson has gone too far, but 65 percent of African Americans feel that way. Those concerns, of course, are not just shaped by this event, but deep-seated lifetime experiences and perceptions.
But maintaining trust throughout our communities is a critical goal for law enforcement. Huntington Police, for example, attribute much of the progress that has been made with crime in the city to initiatives that have rebuilt relationships and cooperation in high crime areas. That always will be a people-to-people dynamic.
Federal programs now make military-type vehicles and equipment more readily available to local police departments, and some of that gear may be needed. But local and state government must recognize that this a balancing act, and displays of military-like force can often do more damage than good in the long run.
It's hard to be Andy Griffith and RoboCop at the same time.
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