My county's police got 171 assault rifles from the Pentagon. Now what?
August 15, 2014 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Events in Ferguson, MO have me upset about a lot of things, but I'd like your suggestions on concrete local actions to take to combat (further?) police militarization. I'm in Colorado, but location-independent suggestions encouraged, too.

The New York Times has just released a map showing what military surplus gear has been dispersed to local police departments on a county by county basis. The Colorado county I've just moved to has received 171 assault rifles, 6 night vision pieces, and one mine-resistant vehicle since 2006. I've historically been skeptical about the efficacy of many modern activism efforts (not looking to derail the thread in this direction, just providing context), but having purchased a home here, I am seeking to be more involved in my community politically. I'm looking for suggestions of what steps I can take to work against what seems like an ever-escalating capability and willingness to use combat-level force in everyday policing.

Wide range of suggestions / levels of involvement welcome, but especially interested in ideas that are a good fit for folks who don't have more than an hour or two a week to dedicate to this, but still want to do something. The more specific, the better: for instance, I know how to submit a Freedom of Information Act request, but I have no idea what a Sunshine Act request is or how it works... I thought that only had to do with the Affordable Care Act and doctors' relationships with pharma.

Also, if anyone has any particular thoughts on the Colorado aspect of this, I'd be interested. There have been some high-profile mass shootings in Denver-area counties, and I hear we have paramilitary extremists up in them hills, or something? Even our supermarket security guards are armed here, so I'm not exactly optimistic on some kind of public consensus locally.
posted by deludingmyself to Law & Government (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sunshine Laws differ. In Colorado, it appears that the Sunshine Law just allows you to sue for public-meeting notes to be made public. There's info on this page about the Sunshine Law there and the Colorado Open Records Act, under which you can make information requests. Here's the Colorado Press Association's pamphlet (PDF) on this.
posted by limeonaire at 12:07 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

What did law enforcement have before? I would find out.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:18 PM on August 15, 2014

I hear we have paramilitary extremists up in them hills, or something?

Yeah, there are a bunch of them. Especially on the fringe counties of the state.

Not to downplay your concerns - I have them, too - but you have to remember that this also happened in Colorado.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:23 PM on August 15, 2014

I've found in my small suburban/rural town in Oregon where the local police regularly dress in black military fatigues and strap multiple guns to their legs that pressing local government people directly is about the only way to even get the idea of decreasing the militarization of it all. Running into a council member at a coffee shop and letting it be known that it seems insane for our local force to look like they're about to be dropped into Iraq and that they look like SWAT team members all the time is problematic was a surprise to them but I hope in any future votes they think twice or maybe ask why this kind of build-up is necessary.
posted by mathowie at 12:24 PM on August 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

I agree with mathowie, and had a few other thoughts.

First, it is likely that your local law enforcement already had fully automatic rifles available to them - for the most part, LE are able to purchase small arms that are functionally identical to those purchased by the military. The fact that they have rifles and night vision wouldn't really disturb me; keep in mind I'm speaking specifically about just having the items.

With that said, what irritates me is the point mathowie makes - cops who think they need to equip themselves like they are rolling into Fallujah every day. There is a vast difference between each car having an M4/M16 in the trunk and a cop actually carrying it around all day despite the minuscule chance they will need to use it. Same thing with the night-vision or MRAV; I don't particularly care if they have them (we'd be happy they were prepared if there was a legitimate threat), the problem is when they trot that stuff around to show off, bully people, or otherwise posture. Also, keep in mind that there are a fair portion of LE officers who are ex-military - I would imagine it is hard to make a full 100% conversion from the "destroy our enemies" philosophy to the "protect public well-being" philosophy.

Talk to your local government about how threatening/intimidating/etc the police force is if they are indeed constantly overarming themselves. YMMV, but I've found that using the "we don't feel safe with this around and we may have to make a big deal or even move" argument tends to get peoples attention.
posted by _DB_ at 12:53 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Pogo_Fuzzybutt: Not to downplay your concerns - I have them, too - but you have to remember that this also happened in Colorado.

Well... there's no remembering, because I moved here in March. But from looking the dude up, it doesn't sound like any of the level of gear I link above would've done a damn thing in that case - Wikipedia says they were considering calling in the Air Force to fire anti-tank missiles at the thing right before the guy shot himself, because nothing else was making a dent. That said, I grant that the level of armed crazy in Colorado does seem to amp up the level of plausible what-if scenarios to where things like "what if a guy grenade-proofs a bulldozer and drives it around like a tank taking out buildings and aiming for propane tanks" sound eminently reasonable.

This is part of why I'm asking this question. I'm looking for suggestions on how to figure out leverage points where I could actually add my own bit of pressure in a way that might result in change. If Colorado is a lost cause right now, maybe it's better to spend my time on whatever national efforts come out of this, but I'm still interested in what folks might do on a community level with this data.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:57 PM on August 15, 2014

As a person with friends in law enforcement who is somewhat conservative, pro-gun, and generally pro-law-enforcement who nevertheless feels that Ferguson is an example of Cops Gone Wild and hopes that this is a wake-up call about this militarization effect, I'd suggest the following:

- ask for a meeting with your local police chief. If he or she isn't responsive, route the request through the mayor's office or, if you're in a larger city, perhaps your city council person. But I'd try to ask these questions of the city's police chief or at least a senior office in community affairs and/or your city's special ops unit:

- what is the purpose for these weapons? Granted the assumption that the police have a right to be reasonably well armed, what missions do the police carry out in your community that justify the maintenance of these weapons?

- what officers have access to these weapons, under what circumstances? A reasonable answer might be "those officers who are trained as part of special ops, doing high risk operations like drug lab interdiction, or felony warrant service, etc., and trained/certified on the use of this particular weapon." A bad answer might end up equating to "everyone has these in the trunk of their car."

- what is it costing the department to securely store these weapons and train/certify the officers who have access to them? If the department didn't have these weapons locally, are there state or federal agencies which could provide more fire-power in an emergency (hostage crisis, natural disaster leading to widespread civil unrest) Hint: the answer to that last question is yes... if the department is in a larger city and having to clean out a meth lab once a week, it may still make sense. Otherwise...

Obviously, it's up to you as to whether these answers are satisfactory. A hot button area for me would be the level of training they are getting. If you don't find them satisfactory, you might get in touch with the media and let them know what those answers were you got, you might discuss those answers with your mayor, and perhaps your state representatives in the legislature.

It's a complex, emotional issue, and I doubt everyone will be satisfied all the time. I agree that there are times when it's reasonable for police to have body armor and high powered weapons - my friend was on the outskirts of a situation where highly trained snipers took out a person who was holding a child hostage and talking about killing the child, killing officers, etc. This after days of efforts to end the situation peacefully. Unfortunate, ugly, but I feel - justified. Ferguson, on the other hand, is a travesty. I hate to say it, but it took about 10 seconds of hearing their police chief talk on TV to feel this wasn't going to go well. Somewhere in between is a lot of grey area...
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:11 PM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also, keep in mind that there are a fair portion of LE officers who are ex-military - I would imagine it is hard to make a full 100% conversion from the "destroy our enemies" philosophy to the "protect public well-being" philosophy.

Actually, I think some of the ex-military commentary could be helpful here in figuring out what to do, especially commentary that refers to the army manual on civil disturbances. This manual is actually pretty explicit about trying to avoid all forms of escalation and confrontation, and basically explains why everything the police were doing in Ferguson is wrong. So at least part of what you may want to consider advocating for is real training in these issues (along with restraint in purchasing equipment).
posted by advil at 2:21 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depending on the answers you get in talking both to the police chief and to your local elected officials, another tack might be to push for wearable, always-on lapel cameras in addition to anything else you request. After a randomized selection of officers in Rialto, California were outfitted with lapel cameras "in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers' use of force fell by 60% (cite)."
posted by tapir-whorf at 5:03 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

What tapir-whorf said.

Also: you probably won't be able to get rid of them, but you might be able to get the city to make rules about their use. I'd use the open-records law to get any rules that already exist about their use, then show up at the next city council meeting with those rules, and a proposal to enhance them. Or buttonhole/elect a sympathetic council member first.
posted by paultopia at 9:17 PM on August 15, 2014

Response by poster: Some good suggestions so far, and I think a lot of the dialogue-opening ideas are worthwhile, even in a region where my opinion may be in the minority.

In an effort to try to answer my own question, it looks like Alan Grayson introduced a recent amendment to the DoD Appropriations Bill seeking to partially defund the 1033 program, so looking at voting records and campaign contributions on that is another good way to start opening conversations with your representative. Here's a link to voting records for H. Amendment 918, cross-linked by campaign contributions.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:19 PM on August 16, 2014

Here's an update to limeonaire's link above: 2013 edition of Colorado Press Association Sunshine Laws booklet. Also, please check your MeMail!
posted by asperity at 3:43 PM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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