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Craver: Tanks, but no tanks, on police militarization

Published: Saturday, July 12, 2014 11:19 p.m. CDT

I don’t know why police officers and journalists often end up at loggerheads, especially since we share the sacred bond that everybody hates our guts until they need our help.

Having said that, I humbly offer local law enforcement agencies advice before they follow Spring Grove’s lead and buy an armored war machine from Crazy Uncle Sam’s Used Tanks:

“Red Dawn” was just a movie. So was the lousy remake.

No, really. Soviet paratroopers aren’t going to drop on Woodstock or turn the McHenry Outdoor Theater into a re-education camp. The two kids who kicked all that commie tail were actors named Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. As for the Soviet Union, it went belly-up more than 20 years ago.

So do McHenry County’s police departments really need military vehicles meant to defeat enemies on a battlefield? The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office has one for its SWAT team, and has made a case as to why. But Spring Grove, population 5,800?

The sheriff’s office SWAT team and the Spring Grove Police Department have recently acquired MRAPs through a little-known military surplus program. For those of you who have never been told, “Drop and give me 25,” MRAP stands for mine-resistant armor protected vehicle – it’s actually an entire class of military vehicles designed to protect soldiers from mines and improvised explosive devices. They served an important role in the Iraq War, given terrorists’ penchant for planting roadside bombs.

Given that the scourge of roadside bombs is significantly less pronounced in McHenry County, one is allowed – I’d argue obligated – to ask tough questions about what critics call the militarization of our police forces.

I’ve watched with dismay as police departments nationwide have adopted military tactics, uniforms and vehicles meant for Iraq and Afghanistan, not Island Lake and Algonquin. As I wrote in my June 21 story about the vehicle purchases, critics have a valid concern whether police departments are starting to look at the communities they serve as war zones, and the taxpayers paying their salaries as combatants.

Yes, criminals can be well-armed, courtesy of the money that comes from this nation’s insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. And yes, we want to give police the tools to fight crime.

But there’s such a thing as overkill, and police departments snapping up military vehicles and weapons is only part of the problem. Revenues from drug asset forfeiture laws are allowing police departments all over the nation to create and fund SWAT teams, which are now being routinely deployed to violently take down nonviolent offenders, and in a growing number of botched raids, hurting innocent people. Do I think this will happen in McHenry County? I hope not. But that temptation will grow if more departments get their hands on MRAPs, grenade launchers and other gear.

I know this because of my firsthand experience as an Army infantryman. When you give people in dangerous jobs new toys, they always search for ways to play with them. Anyone who’s ever worn the uniform in a combat arms unit knows exactly what I’m talking about. When government gets a new power, it always finds every creative way possible to exercise it.

It shows in the statistics – police with increasingly alarming frequency are employing military vehicles and violent SWAT entries for investigations that could have been handled by a knock on the door. In a recent and horrifying example in Georgia, a SWAT team ripped a toddler open with a flashbang grenade in a raid that produced no guns, no drugs and no arrests.

The sheriff’s SWAT team is the only one in McHenry County. Sheriff Keith Nygren told me for my story that it is only deployed for the true life-and-death situations for which SWAT was created, not to bust down a door, flex-cuff horrified kids and shoot the family dog because of a tip that the teenage kid has a gram of pot.

We can keep it this way by making sure other local police departments don’t snatch up MRAPs of their own. Hopefully Spring Grove’s will serve no duty other than firing Jolly Ranchers out of its windows at summer parades, and that the MRAP’s subliminal pleas to the police to take it out and play with it will go unheeded.

I’ve found in my 14 years in McHenry County that it is full of good cops and deputies. This will change if they start doing their jobs in armored vehicles and Humvees. The culture that will develop will chase most of the good ones out, marginalize and silence the rest, and attract the wrong kind of people into police work.

As a former soldier, I very much understand the desire of police officers or anyone else in a high-risk business to die of old age and not in the line of duty. But every police officer, like every Armed Forces recruit, is a volunteer who knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

A police officer’s desire to make it home to his or her family does not trump our Constitutional rights, just as a soldier’s desire to make it home does not give him or her the right to disregard the laws of war. I took an oath way back when to defend that Constitution, and I still consider myself bound by it.

And because the laws of war don’t apply on the streets of McHenry County, its police departments have no need for any more battlefield vehicles.

• Senior reporter Kevin P. Craver has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 13 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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