16 Aug

Can we interest your local police department in a nice wheeled combat vehicle?

The violence on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. – both the original violence against the teenage Michael Brown and the battles in the streets on following nights – brings up questions that land on the streets of every city. The recent Justice Department investigation of people killed in encounters with Portland police shows just how close it can get.

But the photos of local police on the streets, wearing what looks like armor and backed by ordinance and equipment reminding veterans of the streets of Fallujah, has underlined the technology that complicates the situation more than helping it.

As Mike Francis reported in The Oregonian Friday, the up-armoring of local police departments has been bolstered by the Defense Department open-handedly passing out outmoded military equipment. The list includes mine-resistant vehicles going to Clackamas, Baker and Polk counties, an armored truck going to Malheur county, and wheeled combat vehicles going to Lane and Marion counties.

It’s hard to speak about specific needs, but you might wonder about increasing the military capacity of the Clackamas county commissioner, or whether Marion County really expects armed rebellion from state workers upset about PERS changes.

It’s tempting to deal with unsettled situations with massive force. Examples run from Oregon dealing the gang troubles by sending the National Guard into Northeast Portland in the 1980s to Texas Gov. Rick Perry sending the National Guard to the border to deal with waves of unaccompanied minors. In 1999, I saw the streets of Seattle turn into a wash of police lines, rubber bullets and tear gas for the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization summit – a response that the then-mayor of Seattle recently said may have been a mistake.

When you equip and mobilize police (or National Guardsmen) like soldiers, you make them feel like soldiers, which can make them regard the people they’re dealing with as the enemy. Everybody ends up escalating.

There are hardly any policing problems that are improved by an armored personnel carrier.