Police departments shouldn't be equipped like armies. But the Ferguson, Missouri, police department looked like one recently when officers in full body armor and military-style vehicles fired tear gas and trained assault weapons on people protesting after a police officer shot and killed black teen Michael Brown, whose funeral was Monday.
Armies wage war. Police are supposed to keep the peace. That distinction was blurred dangerously in Ferguson by the provocative display of military hardware, much of it made available by the federal government. Some protesters looted stores. A few threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. There was scattered gunfire. But the oppressive response by militarized police aggravated rather than cooled tensions.
Department of Defense programs have funneled more than $5 billion in weapons, vehicles and other hardware to police in the United States since 1997. The Nassau County Police Department got gear including Humvees and a mine-resistant vehicle; the Suffolk County Police Department got Humvees, heavy-duty cargo trucks and more. There are situations when such equipment can be put to good use. Among them are terrorist attacks and natural disasters, like this month's flash flood, when Suffolk police in Humvees rescued motorists trapped by rapidly rising water.
But the indiscriminate flow of military equipment should be reined in. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the programs. Congress is gearing up for hearings and legislation. The type of equipment available should be limited. Do police really need 14-ton "mine-resistant ambush-protected" vehicles designed to withstand roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan? Police should have to document a clear need for the equipment they seek. And restrictions should be imposed on how it can be used.
Police shouldn't be outfitted for war. The people they are sworn to protect and serve are not the enemy.