Fear the gear? Police 'militarization' discussed

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Frank Schultz
Friday, August 29, 2014

JANESVILLE--Police can stop people on the street, break into their homes and even kill them if circumstances warrant.

“So there should be scrutiny about how we do our work, and we expect that,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore.

Moore was responding to a nationwide discussion about the so-called militarization of police, a discussion fueled by confrontations between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in recent weeks.

One argument has been that if police have more military-style gear, they will tend to act more like the military fighting an enemy than as protectors of their communities.

“It's not what you have. It's how you use it,” Moore said.

Marc Perry, who has worked in at-risk neighborhoods here and in St. Louis, said Moore has a point, but Perry still has concerns.

“It's hard to see those images (from Ferguson protests) and see those large vehicles without having some reaction to it,” Perry said.

Much depends on how police interact with the community, “but there's no way to look at those vehicles and not feel a level of intimidation. It's hard to look at those officers and how they are equipped and not feel some level of intimidation. I think that's human nature,” Perry said.

Moore and others in law enforcement say the gear is needed to keep officers safe.

“It's the right thing for police and a community to do, at least here in Janesville,” Moore said. “I'm not going to speak for other departments.”

In Janesville, Moore said, officers use military tactics and gear less than 1 percent of the time. Most often, officers wear their regular uniforms and carry handguns, Tasers and pepper spray.

Bicycle officers wear the even less formal shorts and T-shirts, Moore noted.

But SWAT teams called to scenes where someone might start shooting wear olive-drab fatigues and bullet-resistant helmets with weapons at the ready, and that's as it should be, Moore said.

“It's my responsibility and the community's responsibility to keep our officers safe from harm, and by extension, our officers keep community members safe,” Moore said.

Times change

Moore and Cmdr. Troy Knudson of the sheriff's office noted that police equipment and tactics have changed in response to events around the country, including the 1997 North Hollywood shootout.

In that incident, officers armed with handguns and shotguns took on bank robbers armed with rifles that had been illegally altered to be automatic, with high-capacity magazines and bullets that could penetrate officers' vests.

“That was certainly a situation that started us to think about what sort of equipment we were providing our officers to protect us from the threats that exist in our community,” Knudson said.

High-profile cases have heightened fears, but overall, gun homicide rates in the United States dropped 49 percent between 1993 and 2010, while other kids of gun violence dropped 75 percent over that period, according to Pew Research, as quoted by the Washington Post.

Rifles on the beat

Janesville and Rock County officers carry .223-caliber rifles in their squad cars. These rifles are based on the military M-4 rifles, which are based on the M-16s familiar to many in the military.

One big difference: The M-16 is automatic. Police rifles are semi-automatic, which means the trigger must be pulled for each shot.

The rifles replace shotguns that used to be standard.

Rifles are more accurate, as shotguns spray pellets that spread out as they travel.

'I'm responsible for every one of those,” Janesville police Detective Chris Buescher said of the shotgun projectiles, adding that he's responsible for only one bullet when shooting a rifle.

The police “patrol rifles” are all semi-automatic and purchased from the manufacturers. Many of the sheriff's office rifles are military surplus.

Janesville police have about five snipers who work with the SWAT team. They most commonly provide information about a situation by peering through scopes that are separate from their rifles, officers said.

Knudson noted that an officer with a rifle was the deciding factor in the resolution of the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek.

Crowd control

The sheriff's office and Janesville and Beloit police train together for crowd control in what they call their “mobile field force teams.” They rarely use that training and associated gear.

Each agency has 15 officers trained and equipped with helmets, wooden batons, gas masks, clear plastic shields and other protective gear.

The helmet is not for stopping bullets.

“That's for getting hit over the head with a bottle,” said Buescher when showing the equipment to a Gazette reporter this week.

High-tension politics surrounding Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan in recent years have heightened local police attention to a potential need for crowd control, Moore said.

Moore acknowledged that an officer wearing crowd-control gear does not present a friendly face.

“It does depersonalize, but there are just some times when we need to keep people safe, and this is how we do it,” Moore said.

Direct from the military

Janesville police have only two items that are military surplus, Moore said: ceremonial rifles and mechanic's tools. The rifles are carried in flag ceremonies and fired at funerals, using blanks. Police have no live ammunition for them.

The department also jointly owns a BearCat with Beloit police and the Rock County Sheriff's Office.

The BearCat is an armored vehicle that was refurbished for police use by a private company and is popular with police around the country.

Armored vehicles, including military surplus MRAPs used in recent wars, have been used in protests elsewhere.

Moore said he hates to say “never,” but he doesn't foresee the use of the BearCat for crowd control. Sheriff Robert Spoden made a similar statement when the BearCat was bought last year.

“It's not designed for crowd control,” Moore said.

Moore said Rock County's total of one armored vehicle is “plenty.”

Police have used the BearCat to protect officers as they approach scenes where guns might be fired at them, including a December 2009 incident in which a town of Richmond man shot at officers, damaging the window of a Walworth County armored car, Knudson said.

“It is a dangerous society, sometimes, that we are called upon to protect,” Knudson said. “I think this protects our officers a little better than what we've been able to do in the past.”

Fear the gear?

Perry said images of black protesters confronting police in Ferguson make him think of dogs and fire hoses turned on black protesters in the South in the 1950s and '60s.

Perry didn't witness those long-ago protests, but they are real to him as the son of black parents who grew up in the South and through news video.

Perry understands that white observers can have different reactions to the same images.

“As hard as it is for someone who is white to make that connection (to civil rights protests), that's how hard it is for me not to,” Perry said.

Perry said virtually every black man has experienced being stopped by police for no other reason than “driving while black.”

“My experience as an African-American male is going to be different than my white counterparts. The way I was treated was different. The way I am treated now is different, so my lens is  going to be different,” Perry said.

Moore said he has met white people who also feel nervous around police simply because they feel nervous around firearms.

“Chief Moore's view will be vastly different than mine,” Perry said. “I think he has a really valid point that some of it absolutely is about how you use (police gear). It's about how the people on the ground are trained and interact with people. … They should have the equipment they need so they feel safe and can protect and serve to best of their ability.”

 “The truth is, a few people cause problems, but unfortunately, more often than not, African-Americans are grouped and labeled. ... and sometimes mistreated and disrespected, and sometimes by law enforcement,” Perry said.

Moore said educational efforts can lessen gear-fear. During National Night Out events, police have displayed their SWAT gear and tactics, and civilians, including children, were allowed to try on the vests and helmets.

'Perhaps that takes some of the edge off,” Moore said.

“If I have to deal with a bad perception and it saves somebody's life, I guess we'll deal with a bad perception, but I hope people will remember these other incidents (when officers' lives were at risk),” Knudson said.

“Some things happen in law enforcement that just are not pretty,” Moore said. “I don't know that there's any way to change that.”

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