Lessons of Ferguson for Salt Lake City

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
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Ferguson, Missouri looks like a war zone. You can’t turn on the news without seeing angry citizens facing off against well-armed police officers. Tensions are high, people are being arrested, and at least one young black teenager is dead.

While watching these scenes unfold, it is hard to imagine anything like that happening in Utah.

But we already see it. From Ogden to West Valley to Salt Lake City—we’ve seen drug raids go wrong, and altercations and arrests go bad all ending with deaths.

I admire anyone who chooses to become a police officer. It is a hard job with low pay and tough hours. You go to work every day with the very real possibility that you may have to deal with unpredictable and potentially violent situations. But when you put on that uniform, with a pistol at your waist and a badge on your chest, you pledge to serve and protect.

But over the last several decades we’ve seen that become less about protection and more about perception as police forces around the country have become paramilitary units, armed to the teeth. And if you are black, young, or poor, you are too often seen as the enemy.

The militarization of our police force has had an interesting and predictable trajectory. It has its roots in the failed war on drugs—a response to the growing aggression of the drug trade and gang problems of the 70s and 80s all operating under the assumption that if criminals have big guns, police should have bigger ones.

Increased force doesn’t increase safety; in fact, it appears to have the opposite effect—often escalating a dangerous situation into a deadly one.

Just as we are facing the unintended consequences of the war on drugs in our bulging-at-the-seams prison and judicial systems, we are also facing the unintended consequences of over-arming our police.

Earlier this year, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, law enforcement agencies around the country, including several here in Utah, were receiving cast-off military weapons and supplies including grenade launchers, guns, ammunition, and even MRAPs – a mine-resistant ambush protection vehicle. All told, Utah agencies have received almost $3M in military supplies.

And we don’t have just one MRAP, we have several in addition to armored personnel carriers and other battlefield-ready vehicles.

But there’s a change in perception that can come with using in domestic neighborhoods a vehicle or weapon designed for use on the battlefield. Police officers start to view themselves as soldiers at war with the citizens they are supposed to protect.

Instead of demonizing our police officers, let’s work to roll back this perception shift.

In light of the Ferguson crisis there is already proposed national legislation to tighten the restrictions on what military weapons can end up on our streets, but our own police forces can enact restrictions on what they accept and what they are willing to use. The Pentagon’s 1033 program was a bad idea that should end immediately.

It is the norm for a cell phone to catch the bad actions of a police officer, it should also be the norm for a video camera on the uniform of that same police officer to catch the other side of the story.

Last legislative session some of the rules surrounding no-knock warrants were changed to better protect both police officers and those they intended to arrest. We need to continue efforts to analyze best practices and make changes to ensure that both safety and constitutional rights are being protected.

Robocop was a movie, and not a very good one at that. Let’s keep it that way. We need to stop seeing police officers as soldiers and police officers need to stop viewing their fellow citizens as potential combatants.

We need to make these changes and consciously move to an attitude of collaboration between our communities and police officers–especially in our most at-risk communities. If we don’t, the next Ferguson, Missouri will be in our own backyard.

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