Baltimore's recent unrest wasn't quelled by trotting out 50-caliber machine guns. It didn't involve grenade launchers of any kind, nor was peace restored by a phalanx of police armored vehicles in the middle of Sandtown-Winchester. Ultimately, the week-long public disturbance was curtailed by following fairly standard police crowd control efforts (including exercising considerable restraint at times) and the willingness of elected officials to acknowledge protesters' concerns — and take action — regarding the death of Freddie Gray. Military equipment was confined to the actual military in the form of National Guard troops who were called to the city on a limited mission and who promptly left when peace was restored.

That's why President Barack Obama's decision to ban the sale of certain types of military weaponry to local police departments, and limit the availability of others, is overdue at best. The mere presence of such high-powered weaponry in the hands of police is asking for trouble — even if left unused, it suggests the police aren't about seeking justice but about employing brute force, that they are soldiers at war and not in the business of serving and protecting.


That a presidential task force on which both Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts served has released a report endorsing community policing and similar outreach techniques over strategies that resemble an "occupying force" coming in from the outside to "impose control on the community" should also surprise no one. As Baltimore has already learned, you can't arrest your way out of violent crime — that approach only further alienates the very communities most in need of help from the police department.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the notion that police departments might be in need of military gear like automatic weapons made some sense. At a time of great uncertainty and fear, this was something Congress could do to seemingly buttress the nation's defense capability — provide billions of dollars in aid in the form of military equipment through programs run by the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

But the militarization of police has not proven to be especially helpful to anti-terrorism efforts, let alone normal police duties. It isn't just places like Baltimore of Ferguson, Mo., where community leaders have rejected this approach when incidents of possible police brutality set off violence and looting but elsewhere as well. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a recently-declared GOP candidate for president, spoke out against these policies a year ago in the wake of Ferguson. "There should be a difference between a police response and a military response," he wrote.

The image of tracked armored personnel carriers rolling through the streets of American cities and towns conjures images more suited to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. That police are not necessarily even trained to handle some of these weapons makes them all the more unnerving. It's notable that an ordinary camera — whether attached to a police officer, a patrol car or just part of a bystander's cellphone — has proven the better, more powerful "weapon" on America's frontline (and one that many police departments, including Baltimore's, are now scrambling to acquire).

President Obama isn't banning all military gear, but he is seeking to strike a better balance regarding how to make communities safe. Mr. Obama has the authority to limit the federal government's role in the acquisition of military hardware, but he can't tell police departments how to police — that's a decision left largely to state and local governments. But one would hope that communities are looking at Baltimore and learning. Whatever mistakes were made here, military-style weaponry in the hands of police would not have made them better.

Better to look to Camden, N.J., where the president made his announcement on Monday. Instead of tanks, County Police Chief Scott Thomson has responded to crime by putting more officers on the streets who are talking and listening to people. Instead of machine guns, he has been investing in better systems to organize data so officials can study the efficacy of traffic stops or the use of deadly force. He calls his policing philosophy "service before self," and it represents community policing as a core principle, not just an occasional strategy. The result has been a 40 percent drop in homicide in two years.

Make no mistake, this is not a matter of going "soft on crime" but pursuing crime-fighting strategies that are effective. What possible good is a grenade launcher to police? The answer is none whatsoever. And how dumbfounding is it that there are police departments led by individuals who think it's a useful tool. That may be the scariest part of all.