Be careful. Image matters.
Granted, police work isn’t for the faint of heart. The risk is real. Last August’s death of Anniston Policeman Justin Sollohub, who was killed while on a daytime patrol, served as a solemn reminder of the dangers that exist.
The rub is that communities need to see their police officers as more than armed, uniformed personnel who, when necessary, can guard the streets with Army-style weapons. Communities need to see officers as who they are: People who genuinely care about the well-being of those they protect and serve.
That said, last Friday’s story in The Star about several local agencies’ growing caché of used military equipment was fascinating. We assume, for example, that few Oxford residents knew their city’s Police Department had stockpiled more than $3 million worth of military gear.
Nothing about this scenario is improper, government-wise. The two local agencies highlighted in the story, Oxford Police and the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department, have taken advantage of the Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program, or the 1033 program, which allows agencies to buy all sorts of used military gear. The program dates to 1997.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson is right to point out that the 1033 program covers some of the holes in local budgets, which often do not pay for certain expensive and specific gear.
Likewise, Amerson is correct, as well, that it’s “a little spooky” that his department has an M16 rifle for every deputy.
Hence, our admonition: spend wisely, but be careful. When it comes to image, spooky isn’t good.
We’re not insinuating that modern law enforcement doesn’t occasionally need advanced, military-style gear. It’s difficult to expect officers to protect themselves with service handguns if the suspect they’re trying to arrest is armed with an assault rifle.
Nevertheless, residents should query their local police chiefs: How often do your officers need this array of military equipment? How many times this year has the Oxford PD used its tank? Do Amerson’s deputies need that much Army surplus?
Missing in this is the concept of moderation. The 1033 program has genuine merit. Military gear is useful — whether it’s body armor or an office computer. In certain situations, local officers need as much protection as they can get.
But even in these days of increased dangers for police departments, local forces aren’t paramilitary units; that’s not the image they should project, either. If this arms race among Calhoun County’s police departments isn’t already out of hand, it might be soon enough.