Another Perspective

What About Watertown?

Militarized police can come in handy.

By 8.18.14

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Before the folly of the Ferguson Police Department’s overreaction to looting and rioting following the fatal shooting earlier this month of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager, there had been concerns raised about the militarization of our local police departments by the federal government. Last month, Fox News Channel’s John Stossel wrote: 

I want the police to be better armed than the bad guys, but what exactly does that mean today?

Apparently it means the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security equip even the tiniest rural police departments with massive military vehicles, body armor and grenade launchers. The equipment is surplus from the long wars we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following the Ferguson folly, Alec MacGillis of the New Republic picked up on this theme:

But what’s really driving the spectacle of militarized local police is that spigot of money that was turned on after Sept. 11, 2001, when a federal government abashed to have missed so many warning signs for those devastating attacks acted as if that massive failure could be washed away by sparing not a cent in preventing the next one. A whole industry has sprung up to capitalize on that spigot—like the company that’s been selling mine-resistant BearCats at $280,000 a pop to 100 towns per year. The flow of funds has become so reliable that the Missouri Office of Homeland Security holds regular workshops to advise local agencies on how to get their hands on the dough; the most recent one was held on July 24, at the Meramec Regional Planning Commission in St. James, according to a notice published in the Rolla Daily News.

Then Senator Rand Paul got in on the act. In an editorial for Time, Paul argued:

The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.

I agree with Stossel, MacGillis, and Senator Paul that local police forces have been behaving in an arbitrary, capricious, and heavy-handed manner throughout the country. But Rand Paul’s suggestion that the federal government stop subsidizing local police departments with surplus military equipment is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The problem isn’t federal funding of surplus military equipment to local police departments, but rather how and when local police departments should use such equipment. The issue isn’t the equipment, but using it wisely. Under these circumstances diligent and thorough preparation and training are in order. In Ferguson, Missouri, it was neither the time nor the place to deploy this equipment. But can the same be said for Watertown, Massachusetts? You remember Watertown, don’t you?

On April 18, 2013 — three days after the Boston Marathon Bombings — the Tsarnaev brothers surfaced when they executed MIT police officer Sean Collier in Cambridge. The Tsarnaevs subsequently carjacked a vehicle and led law enforcement on a chase to Watertown. During this chase, the Tsarnaevs threw homemade explosives and exchanged gunfire. This would result in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev while Metro Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) police officer Richard Donohue was seriously wounded albeit very likely by friendly fire. The pursuit of Dzhokar Tsarnaev would last until the early evening of April 19, when he was captured alive. In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee in July 2013, former Boston Police Department Commissioner Ed Davis testified about the importance of federal funding of equipment for local police departments:

Funding also provides important technology that would not be possible without UASI funding: vehicles such as command posts, armored vehicles, robots, harbor patrol vehicles and other safety equipment. This equipment allowed us to take Dzhokar Tsarnaev into custody alive.

The operation that led to the downfall of the Tsarnaevs wasn’t without criticism, of course. Ron Paul, the former GOP presidential hopeful and father of the junior Senator from Kentucky, had only complaints:

Forced lockdown of a city. Militarized police riding tanks in the streets. Door-to-door armed searches without warrant. Families thrown out of their homes at gunpoint to be searched without probable cause. Businesses forced to close. Transport shut down.

But most Bay State residents did not share the elder Paul’s views. Unlike Ferguson, local law enforcement in Watertown and Boston were treated as heroes following the capture of the younger Tsarnaev. A poll conducted shortly after Tsarnaev’s capture showed 86% of Massachusetts residents were favorably disposed towards the conduct of local law enforcement during the operation.

Let me put it another way. If, heaven forbid, there is a bombing at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis resulting in deaths and injuries to innocent civilians and the terrorists make their way to Ferguson, I want the Ferguson Police to be better armed (and better prepared and better trained) than the terrorists. And if takes funding by the Department of Homeland Security to make that happen, then so be it.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.