Police use of military-style gear is rarely appropriate [Letter]

Nothing can justify the looting and violence by those who used the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer as an opportunity to destroy the businesses and property of residents who had no hand in what happened and we should condemn the actions that have overshadowed the rights of citizens to peacefully protest. Yet the presence of military-style equipment in response to such demonstrations of civil disobedience should also be scrutinized.

I spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, first as a Maryland state trooper, then as the public safety director in Prince George's County. But having grown up only a few miles from Ferguson, Mo., I was in disbelief over the images of armored vehicles and counter-snipers peering through their scopes at protesters there.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most jurisdictions felt vulnerable when it came to preparedness, equipment and training. Police, fire and emergency management executives were consulted with regard to what equipment would be needed to better defend our communities against future attacks ("Md. police receive millions in military gear," Aug. 16).

As the public safety director for a county bordering Washington, D.C., I worked with other senior executives in the National Capitol Region to make decisions on the purchase and acquisition of equipment to help defend our country against future terrorist attacks. The conversion of military equipment was one cost-effective way to build capacity without burdening our citizens with the cost of purchasing new equipment.

Public safety executives tasked their police departments with developing plans and standard operating procedures for the use of this new equipment. Men and women were trained on proper usage and only under certain conditions, outside of terrorist attacks on domestic soil, would this equipment be called into action. During winter storms, police and fire officials use armored vehicles to respond to calls for service when their police cruisers couldn't navigate through snow. Police departments also used some military equipment in barricade situations where heavily armed suspects were holed up in homes and buildings.

There are legitimate uses for this equipment. However, it was an unwise decision by police in Ferguson to use military-style equipment in response to the protests there. Officials here in Maryland and across the country should take this opportunity to re-examine how police departments use such equipment and make sure that there are adequate policies in place before it is used.

Vernon Herron, Baltimore

The writer is a senior policy analyst for the Center for Health & Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

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