By James Poulos.
The acquisition of a mine-resistant armored vehicle by the city of Davis has drawn national attention and fueled a statewide outcry over the armament of law enforcement with military-grade equipment.
In a detailed history of the so-called militarization of California police, the New York Times interviewed critics and defenders of the Davis vehicle, which carries a price tag of $700,000. “All of this equipment is needed, and this makes obtaining such equipment affordable,” said Christopher Boyd, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. “Armored vehicles are extremely valuable. They are very expensive. Most police departments cannot afford to buy them.”
A traumatizing incident
According to the Times, analysts said that the popularity of heavy arms on the force traces back to 1997 and the infamous “North Hollywood shootout,” wherein two bank robbers clad in body armor outgunned cops for an hour before being killed. “The North Hollywood incident really was the catalyst that told us it was time to make sure that we armed our deputies in the field,” recalled Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
Although CNN reported at the time of the shootout that officers had to commandeer supplies from a nearby gun store to mount an adequate defense, none of the 10 police officers or 15 bystanders injured in the melee faced life-threatening injuries. As the CNN report emphasized, however, the LAPD cops who first arrived on the scene carried nothing more powerful than their standard-issue 9mm Beretta handguns.
Bulking up on the cheap
In the mid-1990s, California cops typically packed a shotgun at most, with few even carrying a rifle,according to a Contra Costa Times review. The suddenly alarming and embarrassing situation played a key role in shifting priorities and attitudes for state law enforcement agencies. But California’s police militarization kicked into high gear during a perfect storm of tightening state budgets and growing federal largesse. As the Times noted, cash-strapped state PDs jumped at the chance to exploit programs created by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security as the war on terror geared up.
Militarization in Southern California, however, wound up spreading beyond the LAPD, which has long led the trend thanks to city concerns over gang violence. The Contra Costa Times report highlights the Baldwin Park Unified School District’s three automatic rifles and LAUSD’s three grenade launchers.
Officials said only rubber bullets would be launched from those devices. But civilian concerns over disproportionate force have mounted from Los Angeles to Davis and beyond, especially in the wake of the high-profile police response to recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Importantly, conservative, libertarian and liberal interests alike have begun to stake out a rough consensus on the issue. For Californians on the left, police militarization has been tied to social and criminal justice issues of central concern. For libertarians, the controversy has fallen squarely under the rubric of civil liberties and state coercion. And for conservatives, a deeply dispiriting sense has set in that the good old days of friendly neighborhood cops have given way to a time when police look too much like strike teams sent to fight the world’s worst terrorists.
Whatever the bargains law enforcement can find on army-grade gear, public opinion may have already turned against the deals.
A protracted conflict
Changing sentiments, however, haven’t changed more than a handful of notable police purchases. Last month, the city of San Jose had to apologize after its under-the-radar acquisition of a drone. But the vehicle has remained in city possession, and residents’ opinions have remained mixed.
In Davis, meanwhile, the City Council has required police to return the $700,000 armored vehicle to the Department of Defense, sparking an outcry from law enforcement themselves. “We have a genuine and job-specific need for the types of equipment that most people wish that they wouldn’t have in their communities,” warned Davis Police Chief Landy Black.