Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre in 1770. A group of redcoats fired on an unruly crowd who had thrown snowballs and trash at them and who were advancing with clubs. Attucks, who had a stick in his hands, took two rounds in the chest. While John Adams, the Boston lawyer who became President, was able to convince a local jury that the soldiers should not be convicted of murder, the bad PR from soldiers gunning down citizens moved the colonies closer to revolution.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Crispus Attucks was mixed race, black and native american, and 244 years later, we have an unruly crowd facing a bunch of paramilitary cops and whole lot of bad PR.
When Sir Robert Peel created the first modern police force in London (1829), he made a point of dressing the officers so that they would not look like soldiers. He viewed the police as members of the public who were being paid to provide full-time attention to “prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force.” American experience with using the Army as civilian police led to the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act.
I’ve been a soldier. My brother has been a cop. My training on how to respond to a violent situation is significantly different from his. It’s not equipment that makes the difference. It’s training and mindset.
It may be that some civilian police need vehicles such as MRAPs, a bomb-disposal squad or a department tasked with response to a potential terrorist target. But the image of armored vehicles in the street echoes of totalitarianism. It may be that some surplus military gear can be legitimately repurposed for civilian law enforcement. But it should not be passed out like candy to Delta Force wannabes who lack the training, experience, or real world need for it. As one police chief once remarked: “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute. It’s worse than a crime; it’s a blunder.”