Mayberry’s sheriff doesn’t need a tank: Conservatives should be up in arms over the militarization of police

Police Tank

Neenah is a small town of just more than 25,000 residents situated on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. There were just three murders in the period from 2000 to 2012, and both the violent and property crime rates are well below the national average.

But according to the New York Times, Neenah’s police force has acquired a vehicle you might expect to see on the streets of Kabul:

Inside the municipal garage of this small lakefront city, parked next to the hefty orange snowplow, sits an even larger truck, this one painted in desert khaki. Weighing 30 tons and built to withstand land mines, the armored combat vehicle is one of hundreds showing up across the country, in police departments big and small.

The 9-foot-tall armored truck was intended for an overseas battlefield. But as President Obama ushers in the end of what he called America’s “long season of war,” the former tools of combat — M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more — are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.

With violent crime significantly lower than the national average in this small town, why does their police force need a vehicle designed to withstand heavy combat?

Unfortunately for most Americans, these types of law enforcement acquisitions are not uncommon in towns and cities across the country, especially as we wind down conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More from the New York Times story:

During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.

The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.”

Radley Balko has been reporting about police militarization for years. He chronicled the decades-long evolution of police units into para-military forces in his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop, which is an insightful (and often inciteful) read. Balko now contributes at the Washington Post’s “The Watch” blog, focusing on civil liberties and the criminal justice system.

Balko’s crusade against police militarization is one conservatives can embrace. The ideals of limited, constitutional government can and should be applied to law enforcement. If the federal government can take away our freedoms and then enforce those directives at the barrel of a gun, so too can local law enforcement agencies.

The rise of no-knock SWAT raids by local law enforcement is enough to give any liberty-loving American a chill up his spine, particularly when those types of raids often target the wrong homes or injure innocent children.

Since 2006, local law enforcement agencies have acquired hundreds of vehicles and thousands of pieces of equipment “to serve and protect” the citizens of communities all over the country. Those tools are weapons of war, not instruments to keep the peace. Conservatives should be skeptical of their proliferation.

The New York Times article provided this chart:

Militarization of Police

Even the Heritage Foundation took note earlier this year. Their conclusion is one that gives hope to civil libertarians and conservatives skeptical about the use of force against Americans: “Local police should reserve these war-ready vehicles for situations that actually resemble wartime.”

Keeping the peace in Mayberry isn’t the same as waging war in Afghanistan. It’s important that we keep that in mind when local police departments attempt to buy these weapons of war.

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