What the hell is that, anyway?
I know, yes, what the words and the strategy they imply mean. But why are we talking about American cities as ‘battlespace,’ as Defense Secretary Mike did last Monday (June 1) on a conference call with President Trump and the nation’s governors?
Friends, I have thought for some time that our police forces have become too militarized. Too reliant on military tactics, on special teams with special weapons, with night-vision gear and black rifles and tank-like vehicles. Once you have all those things and start to train with these devices and use them, I think it’s a bit less likely the police involved will see protesters and other citizens as their neighbors, and more likely they will see them as combatants. To be, as Esper and Trump said, “dominated.”
That certainly has been the case in some of our large cities, with police at times treating protesters as rioters, without any particular evidence, and arresting them. New York City is an example, but hardly the only one. Fortunately, that has not been the case in Putnam County, which saw a protest every day last week. I cannot remember such a thing happening before. All were peaceful. Local law enforcement attended all of them, and mingled with the protesters. It was low-key. No rioting, no looting, no over the top police response. Respectful, even. It’s clear that a lot of people have thoughts about this and want to be heard.
I’ve been concerned about this militarization thing for a while. I wrote about this in 2014, after the Ferguson, Mo., killing of, yes, a black man, and the militarized response to the protests that ensued. And I noted the local examples where such gear had been trotted out right here in Putnam, at the May 2013 Putnam Cycling Classic, and again for the wedding of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and Randy Florke in June 2014. Both of these occurrences were under former Sheriff Donald Smith.
A good bit of this equipment (though certainly not all) comes through a federal program designed to share surplus military equipment with local authorities. Sounds good, right?
Except this: Then the local departments have military style gear they would never think of buying on their own. Gear that the Legislature or local lawmakers would never approve, at least in these quantities. Soon, the department starts to look less like the local Police or Sheriff’s Department with its friendly school resource officers, and more like a military force.
I believe we need to have a frank, national conversation about the militarization of our police forces and whether this is a good thing. Including our local police forces.
And, quaintly, I thought we could help shed light on that. So we asked the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, headed by Sheriff Robert L. Langley Jr., “How many assault rifles are part of the Sheriff’s Department arsenal?” Usually, these are semi-automatic rifles, usually
.223 in caliber. Most are black with a skeletal stock, with the capability to add advanced optics and other accessories. Night-vision sights, for example. A variant uses the very similar cartridge, 5.56x45mm NATO round. For all practical purposes, this is the rifle our military troops use. But I wondered, how many of these rifles does the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department have? Dare I ask, how many does it need? A rifle, you see, almost never wears out, and, even then, most parts can be replaced. The Sheriff’s Department intended to buy three of the “Law enforcement 223 16″ 1/30 round” last year, according to just one purchase order. In other words, .223 in caliber, with 30-round magazines, 16” barrel. At a cost of $2,139.
Anyway, the answer came back from our Sheriff’s Dept.: “Unfortunately, this information is something that cannot be released. It may jeopardize the safety and security of the Office.”
Hmmm. That’s not going to help us have a conversation about the militarization of police, and whether that’s a good thing. Including right here in Putnam County.
NOTE: I am not suggesting that the police be outgunned. I am not suggesting that the Sheriff’s Department not own any rifles. Rather, I am suggesting that we need a national discussion about police tactics and how they have become increasingly militarized — and that we should also have that discussion at the local level, here in Putnam County.
Last week, June 4, marked the 31st anniversary of the beginning of the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Nah, there aren’t any comparisons here to using military force against peaceful civilian protesters. That’s only in other countries, right?
Except, when it’s not just in other countries. Sometimes, like now, it’s right here.
Another thing that used to happen only in other countries was outright attacks on members of the press covering events of public import. It used to be that members of the press were beaten only in authoritarian regimes, where they posed an impediment to the control of information. But we have seen during these protests, in city after city, attacks on members of the media in which they are struck, shot at with rubber bullets and gassed by police. In the United States, where freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. As is, not for nothing, the right to peaceably assemble. Both are under some siege.
Until next week.
Douglas Cunningham is editor of the Courier and the Putnam County News and Recorder, in Cold Spring. Reach him at 845-265-2468, or at email@example.com. Letters are welcome, to the same address, and should be 500 words or less.