Panel: Meaning and effects of police militarization

"The Legal Consequences of Police Militarization" panel at the WMU Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids on Oct. 22, 2015.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — National and local leaders gathered in Grand Rapids Thursday evening to discuss the recent attacks on police officers and the topic of police militarization.

The panel was held at the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and was called “The Legal Consequences of Police Militarization.”

The discussion covered a number of topics, including how the police force has changed over the years and the use of body cameras, bulletproof vests, drones, tanks and other equipment commonly used by the military and also sometimes by law enforcement officials.

“All of a sudden, after (civil unrest in) Ferguson, (Missouri) the national attention was on this issue of police militarization and it became sort of a household term,” Kara Dansky, former senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Justice, said.

One of the main topics discussed was whether or not the police force has militarized. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle Lajoye-Young said it hasn’t.

“I think it’s kind of a misnomer. It’s easy to label it that way because when you don’t have an understanding of how equipment’s being used. You can associate a function to it that maybe isn’t actually accurate,” Lajoye-Young said.

She said the equipment in question — military surplus items that local law enforcement can buy for cheap — has only been used defensively and helps protect the public.

Military surplus armored vehicles at the Allegan County Sheriff's Office. (May 18, 2015)
(Military surplus armored vehicles at the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office – May 2015.)

“They’ve been used to rescue people from floods across the country and mudslides out West and over and over again,” Lajoye-Young said. “There’s examples of where normal everyday equipment for police departments aren’t the only things needed to end a situation peacefully, so it’s important for the public to understand that we’re here to protect and serve. We have only a protect and serve mission. We don’t have any military objective. We don’t have any land that we’re trying to gain or other things that we’re trying to do with this equipment. We are here to protect and serve and if we don’t have the proper equipment to do it, we’re not as effective and more people including citizens, including officers, including suspects become injured in the process.”

Some panelists disagreed, saying the police force has militarized and that places the public in harm’s way.

“I think that police militarization doesn’t protect public safety, but actually makes things more dangerous. We certainly saw this play out in Ferguson and I spoke with many law enforcement officers after Ferguson who said what happened in Ferguson is the responsibility of the police. They showed up in a very aggressive manner. They didn’t have to. They could have deescalated the situation and they chose to show up with tactical vehicles and with military gear and with battle-dress uniforms and that is frightening and alienating to a community that’s already in pain,” Dansky, formerly of the ACLU, said.

The Calhoun County Sheriff's Office armored Emergency Management vehicle. (Aug. 20, 2014)
(The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office armored Emergency Management vehicle – August 2014.)

Both sides agreed that it’s an issue that’s prevalent in our society and one that needs to be discussed.

“Discussions that allow people to gain further understanding into the community service part of the sheriff’s department or any public service entity is really important. It helps shed light and better understanding and it helps people engage in better dialogue and for better practices in the end,” Lajoye-Young said.

“A lot of people are talking about it and concerned about it and want to know what to do and how to strike the right balance between having safe communities and having appropriate relationships between law enforcement and the communities that they serve,” Dansky said.

The panel also discussed recent attacks on law enforcement officers and the deaths of individuals including Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York in 2014.

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