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Craver: It's time to demilitarize the police

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 11:49 p.m. CDT

I used this space several months ago to warn what will happen if we continue to allow police departments to be equipped like military units.

Now that we’ve seen a small St. Louis suburb for all purposes and intents be locked down by an occupying army ordering people to “turn off their cameras,” I get exactly one “I told you so.”

And here it is: I told you so.

Police militarization, which I explored in a June 21 news story and a July 12 column, is the disturbing phenomenon of giving police departments access to war equipment, such as military rifles, camouflage uniforms and armored personnel carriers. The mindset that subsequently develops, as we saw firsthand in Ferguson, Missouri, is to start looking at communities as battlefields, and residents as combatants.

Before we start, let’s get the troll bait out of the way. I’m not anti-cop. I’m against turning police into soldiers. I’m not pro-looter, and have no sympathy for people arrested for exploiting a tragedy by smashing in store windows to steal beer and cigarettes. I’m against shooting rubber bullets and tear gas in a subdivision, at people in their yards minding their own business.

We can’t allow the images of police overreach in responding to civil unrest take away from the incident that started it all – the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a police officer. But while we tackle the sensitive civil rights issues underlying the shooting, we have to make our best effort to muscle the Godzilla of police militarization back into its cage.

It’s time to put away the toxic partisanship of today, in which it’s OK for rights to be denied to victims who don’t share your politics. It’s time for liberals to stand up to federal excess at Bundy Ranch, and it’s time for conservatives to oppose nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protesters getting pepper sprayed for sitting in a road.

Fortunately, the fix to end police militarization isn’t a complicated one. All the federal government has to do is stop the programs that for decades have allowed police departments to buy military surplus at bargain prices.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, and not just because of government’s addiction to waste, excess, unnecessary spending and exerting control.

It’s also because of the maddening cluelessness of our elected officials. If there’s a textbook definition of “clueless,” it’s government expressing shock and horror over the fact that police have dared to use the guns and tanks that government gave them.

President Obama on Thursday said that there’s “no excuse” for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail. Attorney General Eric Holder said he is “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”

But is there any message more conflicting than an administration questioning why civilian law enforcement is using the military weapons and vehicles that administrations since Richard Nixon have put in their hands?

So I have an idea, Mr. President. Shut it all down. I’ll take the coincidental IRS audit that comes out of writing this.

Put an end to the programs administered by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, etc., that allow small towns such as Spring Grove to get armored MRAP vehicles.

Shut down the programs that you can on your own, and then work with Congress to shut down the rest. You and the tea party don’t get along, but I have a feeling they just might work with you when it comes to de-militarizing our police departments, if they’re truly sincere about restoring Constitutional principles.

Police militarization didn’t start under your administration. But the programs that each year put millions of dollars of military gear into the hands of civilian law enforcement are continuing under it, stronger than ever.

If you’re sincere about your gun-control mantra that “weapons of war don’t belong on our streets,” then stop giving them to the police officers who patrol the streets.

No excuses about terrorism and other what-ifs. We can play the what-if game to justify giving police attack helicopters and Predator drones, or going to other obscene extremes.

Because we’re not making anyone safer by militarizing police. We’re not safer when SWAT teams each year make tens of thousands of violent home entries to arrest nonviolent offenders. We don’t help civil rights, either, because these raids overwhelmingly are targeted at minorities.

You didn’t start this ball rolling, Mr. President, but you haven’t stopped it, either. You can. And you must.

It’s time for this domestic army that bad policy built, and that grew under public apathy and no government oversight, to stand down and be demobilized.

• 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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