Providing a full-fledged commentary on events happening more than 700 miles away in a town few had heard of only three weeks ago isn’t easy.
In fact, if you haven’t been to Ferguson, Missouri, perhaps the most scrutinized city in the U.S. right now, seen the infamous QuikTrip gas station and been enveloped by the tear gas pillowing down from the sky, it’s nearly impossible to get a completely clear understanding of the situation.
But what is evident – even without visiting the Midwestern city of only about 21,000 people – is the inordinate strength of its police force.
This isn’t an issue of size. The Ferguson Police Department – while it’s been criticized for being heavily white – includes a reasonable number of officers.
This is an issue of a police force being allowed to exist with an unnecessarily wide scope and having military-style capabilities at its disposal.
At first blush, the equipment being used in Ferguson has the rather unsavory feel of a war zone, and rightfully so.
State and local police departments, including in Ferguson, and even in Aiken County, have “taken advantage” of a Department of Defense program that’s allowed them to acquire military surplus gear. This gear, in some places, is necessary, and perhaps even more notably, comes on the cheap, at least in the minds of some.
The surplus program includes aircraft such as planes and helicopters, armored vehicles, night vision goggles, assault rifles and even grenade launchers.
What’s reasonable is for cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and even places such as Baltimore and Boston to have this kind of equipment. But for towns that are dwarfed by the size of those cities to possess such power is unsettling.
This surplus program isn’t wholly negative. It has helped to provide First Aid Kits, blankets and boots, and alleviated the costs of purchasing other items that can legitimately and frequently be used to comfort and even save lives.
As Capt. Eric Abdullah with the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office told Aiken Standard reporter Maayan Schechter, “We’re not going to go out there and put together a big wish list. It’s only things we have a need for with very minimal impact on our citizens as far as tax dollars.”
But this isn’t something where we should take the good with the bad.
An Associated Press Investigation in 2013 found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed by the program since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
That’s alarmingly disproportionate. And this militarization has become so evident throughout the country that it’s been criticized across nearly the entire political perspective.
Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for instance, took out a column in Time Magazine, noting there’s a “systematic problem” with today’s law enforcement, and that “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies.”
Paul is spot on here. This program is promoted as saving taxpayer dollars – because it’s surplus equipment and can be bought at less of a price tag – but the federal government is effectively incentivizing it so smaller police forces will buy it. That’s an unseemly exchange, especially for towns so small that few could identify them on a map.
This discussion isn’t new, but it’s clearly been put under the microscope because of the events in Ferguson.
The problems plaguing that city will not be alleviated quickly, particularly with the racial divides and the cultural pains that will have to be eased through a long-term, systematic approach.
But what can be curbed much more easily – through the work of federal, state and local lawmakers, as well as pure common sense – is a reduction in the ever-increasing militarization of small town police forces.
Michael Ulmer is a North Augusta native and the opinions page editor for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @MikeUlmer.