police militarization

Militarization Makes Police More Violent

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced yesterday the Trump Administration’s repeal an Obama-era rule limiting the distribution of certain military equipment (such as tracked vehicles, camouflage uniforms, high-powered rifles, bayonets, and grenade launchers), he dismissed concerns about police militarization as “superficial.”  The evidence suggests otherwise: militarization makes police more violent.

54% of Americans Say Police Using Military Weapons “Goes Too Far”

A majority of Americans (54%) say that police departments using military weapons and armored vehicles “goes too far.” Another 46% believe that police using military equipment is “necessary for law enforcement purposes,” according to a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Although Americans of different races and ethnicities vary widely in their perceptions of the police, majorities of whites (53%), blacks (58%), and Latinos (51%) all believe police using military equipment is excessive.

Police militarization divides partisans. Sixty percent (60%) of both Democrats and independents think that police using military equipment “goes too far” and 40% think it is necessary. In stark contrast, 65% of Republicans think police need to use military equipment while 35% think it’s unnecessary. Support for police militarization comes disproportionately from the “strong Republican” wing of the GOP with 71% in support, compared to 57% who agree among “not very strong” Republicans.

Reading the Tea Leaves of Police Militarization

What do you get when you combine family trips to a gardening store and loose-leaf tea in your trash? To Kansas law enforcement, it’s probable cause to get a search warrant and perform a SWAT-style raid on a private home.

In 2011, Robert Harte and his 13-year-old son went to a store for hydroponic equipment to grow tomatoes for a school project. A state trooper had been assigned to watch that store and write down the license plates of any customers (apparently, shopping at a gardening store translates to marijuana production). To follow up that stellar bit of police work, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office twice examined the Hartes’ trash. They found, both times, an ounce or so of “saturated plant material.”

The Keystone Kops couldn’t tell the difference between tea and tokes using their senses, so they field-tested the substance and the test came back positive for marijuana. (“A partial list of substances that the tests have mistaken for illegal drugs would include sage, chocolate chip cookies, motor oil, spearmint, soap, tortilla dough, deodorant, billiard’s chalk, patchouli, flour, eucalyptus, breath mints, Jolly Ranchers and vitamins,” notes Radley Balko.)

Police Officers Must Keep the Cameras Rolling

Recently released dash camera footage of an arrest in St. Louis, Missouri offers an example of the disturbing flippancy with which cameras can be turned off during police interactions with the public.

According to a police report, on the evening of April 10, 2014, officers Nathaniel Burkemper and Michael Binz stopped a silver Ford Taurus after it made an illegal U-turn and “abruptly parked.” Only minutes earlier, 911 operators had received calls reporting shots fired. One of the calls mentioned a silver car with big rims.

Footage from the dash camera on Burkemper and Binz’s cruiser shows that shortly after the Ford Taurus pulls over, Binz moves to the passenger side of the vehicle, where he searches and handcuffs the passenger. Burkemper speaks to the driver, Cortez Bufford. Burkemper filed a report stating that he smelled marijuana and that both Bufford and his passenger did raise their hands when asked. However, Bufford reportedly “became agitated.” From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Bufford “became agitated,” Burkemper wrote, refusing to give his name and reaching for a pants pocket before the officer warned him to keep his hands in view. Bufford refused orders to get out. Burkemper called for backup when Bufford became “increasingly hostile.”

The report says Binz told Burkemper he had found two bullets in the passenger’s pocket. Burkemper then ordered Bufford out again, saying he was under arrest. Bufford unlocked his door, but refused to exit.

The dash camera footage shows officers pulling Bufford from the car. Then, at least seven officers are involved in kicking, tasing, and subduing Bufford while he is on the street. According to Burkemper’s report, once Bufford was on the street he struggled and reached for his pocket. The  Post-Dispatch reports that Binz “recovered a Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic pistol with four rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.”

Police Body Cameras Raise Privacy Issues for Cops and the Public

Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.

Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.

In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”

At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.

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