The problem with heavily equipped law enforcement units isn’t in the hardware, it’s in the software.
The worst abuse of police power Spokane has witnessed in recent years was inflicted by a police baton, abuse magnified by the misuse of an oxygen mask.
It did not take a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, to kill Otto Zehm.
So the sudden concern since Ferguson, Missouri, was engulfed by violence over the heavy weapon caches accumulated by Washington’s law enforcement agencies, if not beside the point, sidesteps the fundamentals of effective law enforcement. Assembling police forces that reflect the makeup of their communities, training the officers well and helping them build relationships in the neighborhoods they patrol goes a long way toward stopping violence before it starts.
That’s the softer side of policing.
The Ferguson Police Department obviously had little rapport with its citizenry before the shooting of Michael Brown provoked a violent backlash. Officers responded in full battle gear, including armored vehicles, which just intensified the anger of young men like Brown. Why would a city police force wear camouflage?
Because the Pentagon is giving those uniforms away, and all manner of other surplus gear up to MRAPs and helicopters, which soon will be in the arsenals of either the Spokane Police Department or Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. It’s a weapons bazaar beneath the giant umbrella of the wars against terrorism and drugs.
The dangers are real. Officers have been outgunned in some confrontations with drug gangs. Street fights with terrorists are rare, last year’s running gunbattle with the fleeing Boston Marathon terrorists being a rare example.
But Ferguson has raised questions about when access to military gear imparts a military mindset in civilian police forces. Us-versus-them is the wrong doctrine for policing a community that wants effective law enforcement, as Spokane does.
Chief Frank Straub’s effort to open precinct offices to put officers in city neighborhoods is exactly the right response. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has a policy of keeping deputies patrolling the same areas, which keeps them in touch with the citizens they are protecting.
When they have rolled out armored vehicles, they have usually been deployed as moving shields for officers dealing with individuals holed up in a building who may or may not come out shooting.
Making sure responses in such incidents are measured, that the tactics are right, the officers are properly trained, and communication with the public is ready is another piece of the software that keeps the urge to use unnecessary force and armament in check. It’s easy to get wrong, as has happened in Ferguson, and did in Seattle during the World Trade Organization riots of 1999.
The chief and sheriff need to be prepared for similar incidents, but if matters get that far it’s a good bet the soft side of police work has already failed.