Repeats of nightly unrest in Ferguson, Mo., have served as a warning on the dangers of militarizing the nation's police forces.

The unrest started after an unarmed black teenager was shot by a police officer. What started as peaceful protests at times degenerated into violence and looting. While much information is still unclear about the shooting that prompted the unrest, there's little question that the heavily militarized police response to protests made things worse, not better.

For several nights, police responded with a military-style armored vehicles and officers dressed in military-grade body armor. That only ratcheted up tensions in a community that already felt under siege. It was only after Missouri state police took control of the response — sending in uniformed officers to mingle with the crowd and urge calm — that the violence ceased.

The militarized response drew criticism across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals.

Local police forces have become more militarized since the 1990s, first to enforce drug laws, then as a response to potential terrorism. Congress passed laws requiring the military to provide surplus equipment to local law enforcement.

That includes armored vehicles called MRAPs, for mine-resistant, ambush-protected. MRAPs are vital tools to a military force facing improvised-explosive devices in combat. They have questionable value for police in small towns or on college campuses.

Yet a report from New Mexico Watchdog earlier this year found that small towns like Ruidoso, Carlsbad, Deming, Bloomfield and Alamogordo had received surplus MRAPs. The New Mexico State University Police Department also received a surplus MRAP.

The El Paso Police Department has not received an MRAP through the military surplus program, though its SWAT team has a similar vehicle purchased new with federal grant money, a spokesman said.

Such armored vehicles can serve an important purpose in a narrow range of circumstances, particularly in urban areas, such as protecting police or civilians under fire.

But deploying them in other settings, particularly to routine crime scenes or to respond to civil unrest, seems unwise. We don't need our towns and cities looking like combat zones.

Worse, overuse of such vehicles blurs the lines between the functions of police and military force. The problems with that were on display in Missouri in recent nights.

El Paso and other cities have had great success in reducing crime through community-oriented policing, which at its heart views police and citizens as being on the same team. A military response, on the other hand, casts the citizenry as an enemy.

Fortunately, our region has not experienced the types of civil unrest seen in Ferguson, or the mistaken militaristic response to that unrest.

But law-enforcement agencies and communities everywhere should take an important lesson from the events in Ferguson.

 

—El Paso Times