More Military Gear for Police in Baltimore May Not Mean Safer Communities

Militarized responses to violence can deepen rifts between police and communities.
A marine stands guard outside Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall on Wednesday, April 29. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
May 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Armed tanks rolled down the streets as lines of police officers in riot gear marched slowly toward angry crowds. Large trucks delivered concrete barriers to separate and segment neighborhoods while helicopters droned overhead. Soldiers decked out in camouflage fatigues stood watch.

The militarized scene in Baltimore this week is an increasingly familiar tableau for American cities grappling with civil unrest. When protests grow violent and when looting and riots occur, police departments are faced with a hard decision and must act quickly to keep the peace by whatever means necessary. However, the introduction of military gear and tactics can actually aggravate an already tense situation.

“If people in the community are inclined to feel that the police are an occupying army, a militarized presence is going to reinforce that feeling and make it harder to build bridges and open channels of policing,” David Sklansky, a professor of criminal law at Stanford University, told TakePart. “Police can be put in a situation where they need to bring in the National Guard to prevent things from spiraling out of control. But bringing in militarized forces always has a big downside.”

Footage of Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death last summer showed a similarly militarized scene—as in Maryland, the National Guard was called in to restore peace to the city, with the same type of heavy-duty military vehicles and equipment. But in communities where the relationship with law enforcement is already tenuous—particularly in poor communities of color, Sklansky said—militarization can deepen the divide between the police and the people they aim to protect.

While the protests in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s unexplained death in police custody began peacefully, things turned ugly on Saturday night and grew worse following Gray’s funeral on Monday. Protesters threw rocks; police officers were injured. Cars and buildings burned.

“The National Guard represents a last resort in order to restore order,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters at a press conference Tuesday announcing the state’s choice to call in military resources.

As with many other American cities, Baltimore has obtained military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense, which provides state police departments with excess military gear, The Baltimore Sun reported. The list of equipment, catalogued by the Sun, includes military rifles, floodlights, scopes, night vision goggles, and other accoutrements often used in war zones. Another report found that since 2008, the city has spent more than $598,000 of a federal grant to purchase military-style gear for the police department. Maryland as a whole received more than $12 million in excess military equipment through the DOD program.

The program has come under scrutiny by both public officials and civil rights groups, particularly because much of the equipment was made visible by what happened in Ferguson last summer. In response to bipartisan criticism and a Senate hearing on the issue last September, the Obama administration made modest changes to the program that facilitates the transfer of gear and funds to states for militarized equipment.

“It serves to chill that relationship and instill in the people who live [in these communities] a sense of danger, peril, and dread,” former Boston police officer and criminal law professor Tom Nolan told TakePart. “Militarization creates a more perilous situation for the cops and the protesters, as well as people living in the communities.”

The strained relationship between Baltimore residents and police, made evident in the events of the past two weeks, is not a new development. To prevent the kind of uproar that happened following Gray’s death, Nolan said, police departments need to emphasize a philosophy of community policing that builds up a “reservoir of trust” between community stakeholders and police. He pointed to his former department in Boston, where he worked for 27 years and served as lieutenant, as a place that has worked to build such relationships.

On Monday, Dominique Hazzard, a young activist from Washington, D.C., traveled to Baltimore to hand out sandwiches to kids who depend on the city’s school system for lunch after schools closed because of the protests. She wandered the streets with friends. She recalls turning a corner at one point and seeing a line of police in riot gear.

“It wasn’t clear why they were there,” Hazzard told TakePart. “There weren’t even that many people gathered.” An elderly woman with a cart of groceries struggled to make her way home past the line of officers. Down the street, kids played tag and rode their scooters, and militarized tanks rolled slowly by.

“People were just living their lives, trying to go about their days. It was oppressive but normalized,” Hazzard said. She commented on the helicopters that buzzed overhead to one woman who lived in the neighborhood and had come over to the crowd, curious to see what the police were doing. The woman told her there might be a few more police than usual, but she was unfazed—the helicopters were pretty much always in the skies over her home.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” Hazzard said.