GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Police response to protests in a St. Louis suburb that turned violent is raising questions about the apparent militarization of local police forces across the country.
As protestors filled the streets of Ferguson, Mo. this week to protest the death of an unarmed black man shot by a white officer, police could be seen in armored vehicles, dressed in full riot gear and carrying assault rifles. Photos looked like a they were taken in a war zone.
The level of response is facing sharp criticism.
A Democratic congressman from Georgia plans to introduce a bill to Congress in September that would restrict a Department of Defense program that provides military equipment for free to police.
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Grand Rapids) voted for a similar amendment in June that failed. Recently, he tweeted that Gov’t escalates tensions with military equipment and tactics.”
“It’s difficult, because the police department and the sheriff’s department, whatever the case may be, the public wants to be protected,” said Capt. Jack Dykstra of the Holland Department of Public Safety.
Police agencies across West Michigan use some of the old military equipment.
“As the military uses equipment, that equipment is available to law enforcement. With shrinking law enforcement budgets, often times that equipment is something we wouldn’t get otherwise. So we take advantage of those opportunities when they come up. And we want to be prepared for whatever might happen,” Dykstra said.
The equipment usually comes at little or no cost to the department.
“The fact that police look more militarized, there’s no conspiracy in that,” Dykstra said. “It’s just that if we get more military equipment, we’ll take it for whatever purpose we can use it for.”
Dykstra said police need to be aware of the message using military equipment sends.
“We have to remember that the more approachable we are, the more that established trust will be built,” Dykstra said. “Deploying those assets when they need to be is a decision making process. And when is it too much? When is it too much a show of force?”
It’s trust, Dykstra says, that can help a community and it’s police force get along.
“If there’s not that level of trust … It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back type of thing,” Dykstra said. “So trust is kind of the foundation and once you’ve drained that trust, then you are really setting yourself up for a difficult situation with the public.”
In Ferguson Thursday evening, after the Missouri Highway Patrol took over law enforcement in the town, the armored vehicles and riot gear were nowhere to be seen. Officers walked in the streets with residents in their everyday uniforms. There were protests and marches, but they were peaceful — a sharp contrast to the violence of Wednesday night.
Dykstra said a department that reflects the community it serves can also help lead to a better relationship with community members and police.
“The more that the department reflects the community, the better the relationship is going to be. Then a long-standing record of good conduct by police officers build trust,” he said.