Hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a story posted online or get a story emailed to me that poses the question "Are local police becoming too much of a military force?" Inevitably, the story is accompanied by a picture of an armored vehicle being used by a local police department. Some of those are deactivated military vehicles; others are custom built for local police agencies.
First, let me say, in a nation whose very existence originated from the torch of liberty that is a legitimate question to ask. However, citizens should also make sure they are basing their concerns and their conclusions on facts, not on emotion or conjecture.
These armored trucks are typically intimidating in appearance, like a dark painted Tonka truck- on steroids. They oftentimes tend to look like they were driven off of the set of a Mad Max movie.
However, other than appearance, there is nothing offensive about them. They don’t come with vehicle-mounted weapons, no M-60 belt fed machine guns, no artillery and no tank tracks. They are typically large, heavy vehicles made to protect their occupants from small arms gunfire. One blast from something like a simple mortar and they look like Swiss cheese.
These vehicles are most often used either to safely deliver a SWAT team to a location of an armed, barricaded suspect or to rescue citizens either injured or pinned down by a gunman.
When I point that out, some people still pose the question "Why would local police ever need that capability?" On Sunday night, citizens around Larimer County were reminded of the answer to that, when a Loveland Police Officer, making a "routine" traffic stop, was shot with no warning as he approached a vehicle in west Loveland.
Why is that Officer alive today? Simple, he was wearing his body armor. While the officer was seriously injured and is in ICU, he is alive today because he was wearing personal body armor. The concept is the same as having an armored vehicle, just on a much more limited scale. It protected the officer from a felony assault by a gun wielding offender. Did wearing this vest make him a militarized police officer? No, it made him a sensible officer who made appropriate use of the safety equipment issued to him.
Recently, I had a prominent Loveland defense attorney indignantly tell me "Sheriff, there is no justification for local police having an armored vehicle!" I turned the table on him and asked him "So an armored truck is appropriate to protect your money, your bank deposits, but in your mind it is not justified to protect police officers and innocent civilians?" Needless to say, he immediately changed the subject.
I agree, we have to assure that civilian police do not transform their role from being a force to protect the people to a force to defend the government. As your Sheriff, I view myself as the citizens’ representative to government, not the government’s representative to the people.
We should never lose sight of that critical difference. Let’s not confuse protecting the lives of officers and citizens with a militarization of police officers. There is a significant difference between the two.
Justin Smith is the Sheriff for Larimer County, Colorado.