Police militarization raises questions about public safety, oversight
September 5th, 2014
Omaha, NE — Are those soldiers standing on the street corner or are they police officers?[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Police_Milit_Final.mp3]
Many concerned citizens who have recently encountered, witnessed or experienced the militarization of their local police are asking that question.
U.S. Army equipment is made available to local police agencies through a Department of Defense surplus property program that dates back to the 1980s when the “War on Drugs” swept the nation, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union here in Nebraska.
Tyler Richard, is the communications director for the Nebraska ACLU. Richard notes that in the last decade, very little public oversight has been a part of the process.
“It’s very concerning to us that equipment is being given to local law enforcement agencies without any real public say in whether or not this is the best way to protect public safety,” he said.
That very issue came to the fore recently in Ferguson, Mo., when local police officers donned with military-grade body armor and equipment, including armored vehicles, was dispatched for crowd control in the wake of the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Brown was shot multiple times by Ferguson Missouri policeman Darren Wilson following a verbal exchange and scuffle, although Brown himself was unarmed.
In a city like Ferguson where 67 percent of the population is black and only three of 53 police officers are black, it is no surprise to Dr. Samuel Walker that racial profiling exists. Dr. Walker is a police accountability expert and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“All the major police problems involve people of color,” Walker said. “That is the heart of the problem. Everything that occurred in Ferguson brings that out. The whole episode in Ferguson is like an encyclopedia of what was done wrong.”
In the report “Building Public Confidence: Ending Racial Profiling in Nebraska” ACLU Nebraska found that 1 in 29 black drivers and 1 in 28 Hispanic drivers are stopped and searched compared to 1 in 50 white drivers.
“Across this country day in and day out, people of color experience that kind of disrespect and it undermines their trust and confidence in the police and it builds up this reservoir of anger,” Walker said.
Professor Walker said that the conduct of police officers, regardless of their race or ethnicity, determines the outcome of encounters with citizens in most situations.
“If they would treat people with respect– don’t use the ‘f’ word, don’t use the ‘a’, word don’t use the ‘n’, word don’t use the ‘mf’, word don’t use any of those words—you’re going to build up more trust and confidence and get more respectful behavior in return,” Walker said. “But if you don’t treat people with respect and if people feel that they’re being stopped and pulled over without justification, if there is a pattern there, then again that’s going to undermine this kind of trust and confidence.”
Richard said that the majority of SWAT deployments using military equipment are used for drug searches. SWAT was created to deal with emergencies such as hostage, barricade and active shooter scenarios. This shift is a cause for concern, according to ACLU.
“We’re putting military equipment in the arms of law enforcement agencies that have racially biased practices. In Nebraska, if you are in the Omaha area, you are twice as likely to be stopped,” Richard said.
Richard said that studies have shown that increased militarization and hard line law enforcement tactics do not promote public safety.
Walker said the country has a very strong tradition of keeping the military out of local policing.
“The exceptions only occur when you have some major civil disorder like the riots in the 60s, and that’s a very good thing. The point of the military is to protect U.S. national security from foreign attack, not be used domestically,” Walker said.
ACLU Nebraska has recommended several reforms to federal, state and local governments.
“We hope that the Omaha Police Department when negotiating the next unit contract will take this accountability aspect into perspective and make sure we have a law enforcement contract that does treat officers fairly and make sure they have the compensation they need for their very difficult jobs but also makes sure that the public knows the officers that are on the street will be appropriately punished when they use excessive force or violate their own department’s guidelines and rules,” Richard said.
Richard said that complaints against police officers are difficult to litigate without an overwhelming amount of evidence in order to prove that there is a systematic problem with a law enforcement agency. He said there is a need for an independent oversight committee or auditor that can take complaints from the public and have the ability to do something about them in a way that the public can easily access and feel comfortable with.
“At this point that doesn’t happen in Omaha and the oversight bodies that have been proposed so far by Mayor Stothert would fail to provide the independence that the department of justice and other organizations think it necessary for there to be true accountability,” Richard said.
Walker also recommends annual in service training on respectful officer training and on the use of deadly force. Walker said the failure of police departments to set proper standards has created a culture to use excessive and deadly force
“One thing the justice department can do is set certain conditions on the receipt of federal money. If you want federal money you cannot do the following things: You cannot discriminate based on race or sex and still receive federal money,” Walker said.