Like many members of the University community, I found the police response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, disturbing. Law enforcement’s militarized response to mostly peaceful protestors made them look less like a police force than an occupying army. Their aggressive tactics sparked protests around the country, including on the University’s campus.
The issue of police militarization, however, is not confined to Ferguson. Last week, MLive reported that a University police officer was suing the department for improperly using a Department of Justice grant to purchase below-standard body armor. Leaving aside the merit of the suit, why is our campus police department attempting to buy military-grade body armor in the first place?
My current employer, the American Civil Liberties Union, has documented how America’s police forces have become militarized and the tragedies that have too often resulted as a consequence. Police departments do not buy military equipment on their own but instead receive it through grants from the Department of Homeland Security or Department of Justice, or simply are given the equipment for free by the Department of Defense. The federal agencies provide the hardware with no training and little oversight. The results can be absurd: small town police departments across America have acquired automatic rifles, armored personnel carriers, bayonets and other objects designed for use on a battlefield, not our neighborhoods.
A Detroit Free Press investigation revealed that Michigan is not immune to the national trend. The police of Dundee, Michigan, obtained a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, built to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices and weighing around 30,000 pounds, to serve its roughly 3,900 residents. Lake Angelus, Michigan, obtained 13 military rifles despite its department having a single full-time officer.
The consequences of these programs have been tragic. Police departments with military weapons increasingly use them not merely for extreme circumstances but also for mundane purposes such as serving drug warrants. In one of countless harrowing examples, a SWAT team in Lima, Ohio, kicked down a door to look for a suspected drug dealer. He was not home, but the police nonetheless opened fire on Tarika Wilson, his girlfriend, as she held her infant son. The infant survived his injuries but Ms. Wilson did not. In addition to the many victims of individual errors by militarized police, their use of military equipment and tactics undermine public confidence in the police, which in the long run is a greater threat to public safety than the rare circumstance in which military equipment could possibly be useful.
As is so often true with our criminal justice system, the burdens of our militarized police disproportionately fall on the poor and people of color. This disparity was on display in Ferguson and empirical examinations of the deployment of SWAT teams have confirmed that their use is inordinately against marginalized communities. African American students on Michigan’s campus, through efforts such as the Being Black at the University of Michigan campaign, have recently been articulating the ways that students of color can still feel like second-class citizens on campus, among them being increased suspicion from the police towards students of color. Equipment that encourages more distant and aggressive policing can at the least encourage divisiveness and at the worst end in tragedy.
The University of Michigan has a legacy of protest of which we should all be proud. Past generations of University of Michigan students have rallied against the Vietnam War, demonstrated to end racial segregation, and pushed the University to fight for affirmative action up to the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions (even if our record once there looks a bit like Brady Hoke’s). In 1968, on the morning of Martin Luther King’s funeral, a group of University of Michigan students peacefully chained the doors of the Fleming Administrative Building until the University agreed to take steps to make sure African American students and professors were full and equal members of the University of Michigan community. A militarized police department like the one we saw in Ferguson would have responded to such civil disobedience with battle fatigues, grenade launchers full of tear gas and assault rifles drawn. The University of Michigan is too good for such a response. We don’t need militarized police.
Samuel Weiss is a 2009 University alum at the American Civil Liberties Union Center for Justice.