OPINION – What’s wrong with this picture? A woman informs her boyfriend that she intends to leave him. In anger, he throws her belongings onto the front lawn of their townhome. She calls the police and tells them he’s distraught and owns a gun.
Arriving officers try to convince the man to come out of his home but he refuses, talking with them for nearly 40 minutes through a screen door. When the man lowered his hands from where they were resting near the top of the door, an officer fires a single shot that strikes him.
He retreats into the house and a SWAT team is brought in with a Bearcat armored vehicle. K-9 teams and snipers are deployed with helicopters flying overhead. His front door is eventually smashed in by a battering ram mounted to the front of the armored car. The SWAT team finds the man dead from his wound.
A final detail: according to police investigators, the man was unarmed.
Before going any further it must be said that most members of law enforcement are professionals who exhibit honorable qualities. No one wishes to see our police exposed to unnecessary risks. At the same time, it is becoming impossible to dismiss the growing militarization of police at every level as paranoid fantasy.
Though the story described above played out in Fairfax County, Va., this is not merely a case of East Coast overreaction. We’ve seen a similar scene of militarized overkill here in St. George, thankfully without loss of life.
The federal government has been making surplus military hardware available to local law enforcement agencies since 1997 under its 1033 program. In some cases the equipment has been used for entirely benign purposes such as rescuing stranded victims from floodwaters.
But gifts of military hardware from the feds can also be a Trojan horse of sorts. Not only do some agencies find the allure of big-boy-toys irresistible, but also some have abused the program by stockpiling things like crew-served machine guns for which there is little need in civilian law enforcement.
Local law enforcement agencies often point to how the taxpayers are saving money when surplus Pentagon equipment is acquired for little or no cost.
But as Will Grigg explains, there is a downside that is not as readily apparent:
When local police are supported by local tax funds, they are locally accountable. When those police are materially and financially supported by Washington – to any extent – the locus of control and accountability shifts there. That is the principle recognized in the Supreme Court’s 1942 Wickard v. Filburn decision.
The most common justifications offered in defense of militarizing local police include claims that elevated danger necessitates such action. But the real numbers tell a much different story, with neither mass shootings nor terrorism on the rise.
The concept of officer safety has become a catchall excuse to escalate nonviolent situations into the use of overwhelming force. This is how innocent, unarmed individuals can be gunned down without posing a demonstrable deadly threat to anyone.
Perhaps it’s time we remind ourselves that we have been an armed society since before the founding of our nation. Prior to 1934, anyone could purchase a fully automatic firearm from the hardware store without even having to show ID. Before 1968, it was still possible to order a 20 mm cannon and most other firearms by mail.
We made it for over 200 years without encouraging our police to look and behave like an authoritarian, hyper-aggressive military force. There were always dangers associated with law enforcement, but we didn’t expect our police to act like warriors. They were still peace officers first and foremost.
When even small towns succumb to federal enticements to obtain military hardware, training, and tactics, the temptation to use them grows.
This is how small incidents like a breakup can become excuses for a full-blown circus of high drama overreaction. SWAT teams once were reserved for only the most potentially violent situations. Now they are sent on even routine warrant service so long as the magic words “drugs” or “may own a firearm” have been invoked.
We’ve seen unchecked, corrupting lethal power being handed over from president to president and then being expanded. The same can happen at the state and local levels too. With more than 220 SWAT-type raids taking place every single day across America, the isolated incidents are beginning to add up.
We doubt this at our own risk.
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- Utah officials react to loss of Sgt. Derek Johnson, Draper police officer killed on duty
- St. George police ‘protect and serve’ Special Olympics athletes; Torch Run through Utah
- Perspectives: What has happened to our peace officers
- Perspectives: Why endless war doesn’t keep us safe
- On the EDge: When the badge works against you
- Law enforcement use of Tasers, acceptable risk?
- Letter to the Editor: ‘Red Dawn’ St. George
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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