Government, Higher Education, and Law

Symposium panelists debate merits of police militarization

October 30, 2015
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Police Militarization
Panel members spent time examining the need for the latest in equipment and a stronger connection to the community. Courtesy WMU Cooley Law School

Grand Rapids community leaders participated in a panel discussion about the consequences of police militarization at a symposium hosted by Western Michigan University Cooley Law Review Oct. 22.

Kent County Undersheriff Michelle Young, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Gerry Faber and defense attorney Brian P. Lennon offered insight from the perspective of law and order while the community viewpoint was represented by Grand Rapids Urban League President and CEO Joseph Jones, LINC’s co-executive director, Darel Ross, and former ACLU Center for Justice senior counsel Kara Dansky, who spoke from her experiences on a national scale.

Each panelist was given an opportunity to present an opening statement, followed by a half-hour discussion in which the panel fielded questions from the audience. The panel touched on a range of topics, from the perception of increased militarization, the implications and benefits of police body cameras, how officers are trained, and whether the issue lies with use of military weapons or use of military tactics.

Young opened the panel with an account of a recent incident when the sheriff’s department used a militarized vehicle during a standoff involving an armed suspect and a 1-year-old child. To gain access into the home of the suspect, the officers drove an armored vehicle up onto the suspect’s front yard to use as cover and get a camera into the home, which they then used to end the situation without harming the suspect or the child.

“Everything we can do — every little opportunity that I have to get equipment to my officers to maintain their safety while they’re protecting and serving — also protects that community that much better,” Young said.

“As a commanding officer of people who daily put their life at risk, it is so difficult to me to conceive not giving them every possible piece of equipment to meet their needs. It’s difficult for me to understand why somebody would not want us to use this equipment when it represents a safety tool to our community.”

Faber echoed Young’s point on police weapons, noting it would be “ludicrous” for officers not to have access to the same weapons — specifically, AR-15 rifles — that are sold commercially and available to the public. He also indicated his view that police militarization has not become more prevalent, but public perception of police militarization has increased.

In her statement, Dansky disagreed with the argument that perception is pushing the issue, and said she believes police are becoming overly dependent on the use of force. Dansky spoke extensively on a recent study that was conducted while she was with the ACLU, which found that on a national stage, police have become excessively militarized.

It’s the adjective “excessively” that most troubled Ross, a Grand Rapids native who has served on the LINC Community Revitalization board of directors for 13 years.

“This is not an argument of should police departments be militarized,” Ross said. “To me, this is a conversation of should they be overly militarized.

“Nobody’s arguing that police should not be equipped to handle any situation that arises. But this should be a community conversation with community engagement, and residents have a right to define what is overly (militarized).”

With the national discussion of police militarization continuing to roar, the use of body cameras by police officers also is being debated. Faber said as a prosecutor, he is an advocate of the usage of cameras, as they can remove doubt from any situation and show jurors what transpires. He added that since body cameras were implemented in Kent County — the Grand Rapids Police Department began requiring all officers wear body cameras in July — he’s used video taken to deny criminal warrants as well as for evidence in criminal cases.

Jones also advocated for the use of body cameras, but reiterated their usage was not the end-all, be-all to solve the issues of mistrust members of the community have for police departments that has arisen in the wake of civil unrest in Ferguson, Cleveland and Baltimore.

“The city use of body cams is not so much the total solution to decreasing the tension that exists between the community and law enforcement, but a helpful, necessary tool that can be used as a means of accountability,” Jones said.

He added that, in the last eight months, he has facilitated cultural competency training with two local police departments on behalf of the Urban League, and found it to have been useful both for himself and the agencies with which he worked. Like Ross, Jones stressed the importance of the community and law enforcement working together to improve these relations.

Following the question-and-answer portion of the symposium, moderated by WMU Cooley Law professor Tonya Krause-Phelan, each panelist was asked to give a brief closing remark. Jones spoke about living in one of the more unique times in history, before Ross left the assembled audience with a final plea.

“Working in equity and working around culture, we tend to have the same conversation for the next 20 years,” Ross said. “We actually have an opportunity to stop that. So, continue to be willing to have dialogue, continue to really listen and be engaged in the community and work for change.”

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