Photos of officers bearing assault rifles and wearing head-to-toe battle armor this week in Ferguson, Mo., are raising questions over the blurred lines between police and soldiers.
Many look like they were snapped in an Afghanistan war zone, with local police in camouflage and combat helmets as they respond to unrest over the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson.
One picture features law enforcers staging behind a mine-resistant vehicle and launching tear gas grenades into a crowd of protesters and reporters. Others show police crouched in high positions, sniper-style, sighting through cross-hairs.
If you think only police in Missouri are highly militarized, think again.
Cities across the Midwest have access to a military-grade arsenal that includes shotguns and machine guns, in addition to traditional 9mm sidearms and stun guns.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the military has handed out literally tons of surplus equipment to police departments since 2006, including 435 armored vehicles, 533 planes, 93,763 machine guns and 432 mine-resistant armored trucks.
The total price tag to taxpayers: $4.3 billion.
Allen County Sheriff Samuel Crish said the sheriff’s office has a great amount of military equipment, much of which it uses regularly, such as vehicles and apparel.
The office also uses night vision, weapons, tactical gear for SWAT, equipment for the bomb team and lights and tents sometimes used at crime scenes, Crish said.
Getting this military equipment saves county residents a lot of money, Crish said, because they would have to purchase a lot more gear than they currently do. Residents have already paid for military equipment, so it is at no extra expense.
The county can use the equipment in other areas, such as two generators the sheriff’s office just got for the Allen County Courthouse, which saves a significant amount of money. In addition, after a year, the sheriff’s office has permission to sell most of the equipment it receives, Crish said, and it put the money from that into the general fund.
Crish said he does believe that society is becoming more violent, something he says is obvious from the news, although he said he is not sure why.
Deputies aren’t taking high-powered weapons to standard domestic dispute calls. They respond to force with force, said Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association.
“We have to respond to what we’re confronted with,” he said.
Cornwell believes American society is more violent than ever. He cites the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, where 82 shootings resulted in 14 deaths.
FBI statistics on violent crime don’t back that idea, though.
The agency reported a 12.9 percent drop from 2008 to 2012, a trend that carried over a 10-year period as well. The numbers totaled murders, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
The homicide rate in the U.S. has dropped by half over the past 20 years, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.
Although the office has military equipment, Crish said his department is not becoming militarized.
“There’s a difference between military and law enforcement,” Crish said, and he said that he is not concerned about his department becoming over-militarized.
Militarization of local police forces is not the way to protect people, the ACLU reported.
The group points to the 2010 death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones. A SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade into her home while she was asleep, igniting her blanket. Then an officer burst into the house and shot her to death.
“Even if there were merit to the argument that training SWAT teams to think like soldiers in the context of a school shooting would provide them with the skills that they need to respond effectively, it appears that training in how to develop a ‘warrior’ mentality is pervasive and extends well beyond hostage situations and school shootings, seeping into officers’ everyday interactions with their communities,” according to the report.
Whether the spectacle in Ferguson will prod a change in law enforcement methods remains to be seen.
Cornwell believes the strife there will likely be used as a case study of do’s and don’ts by the Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission.