Brian O’Neill: Militarization of police has its hidden costs

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The military has trans­ferred bil­lions of dol­lars of hard­ware to the na­tion’s po­lice de­part­ments, and Pitts­burgh’s been part of that, but the po­lice brass won’t say what kind of weap­onry we have.

Events in Fer­gu­son, Mo., where cam­ou­flaged po­lice have looked more like sol­diers than cops, have got­ten a lot of peo­ple think­ing about the mil­i­tariza­tion of po­lice. But some here be­gan think­ing about it five years ago when the G-20 Con­fer­ence turned Pitts­burgh into a po­lice state for the worst part of a week. (City’s Sep­tem­ber 2009 motto: We won’t let any an­ar­chists shut down our city; we’ll do it!)

We had 4,000 cops and more than 2,000 Na­tional Guards­men tell­ing peo­ple where they could and couldn’t go. Hours af­ter the con­fer­ence bless­edly ended, po­lice ar­rested van­loads of peo­ple in Oak­land for be­ing out­side, mak­ing some of us long for those days when only crime was against the law.

Later, the city rather qui­etly paid close to a mil­lion dol­lars in set­tle­ments to peo­ple who sued af­ter be­ing ar­rested, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union es­ti­mated.

Back in 2009, I didn’t think Amer­ica could ever be­come a per­ma­nent po­lice state be­cause we couldn’t af­ford it. There were hov­er­ing he­li­cop­ters, pha­lanxes of po­lice on mo­tor­cy­cles and of­fi­cers in heavy Star Wars-esque ar­mor Down­town, all to take on what turned out to be a mot­ley crew that wasn’t very good at win­dow break­ing or Dump­ster mov­ing (but were the ones de­serv­edly ar­rested).

Since then, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has sent bil­lions of dol­lars of mil­i­tary hard­ware to po­lice across the coun­try. Even Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Ei­sen­hower might have been shocked at this, though he pre­sciently warned of the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex and its “po­ten­tial for the di­sas­trous use of mis­placed power.”

The Depart­ment of De­fense doles out these sur­plus goods, roughly a third of which have never been used. Some $5.1 bil­lion in ve­hi­cles, equip­ment, weap­onry and other mil­i­tary prop­erty has been trans­ferred since the pro­gram be­gan in 1990, in­clud­ing nearly $450 mil­lion worth in 2013. Lo­cal­i­ties need only pay for ship­ping.

Pref­er­ence is given to counter­drug and coun­ter­ter­ror­ism re­quests, so some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have made rather comic reaches in that di­rec­tion. An ACLU re­port notes Un­cle Sam granted three New Hamp­shire towns just 30 miles apart an ar­mored per­son­nel car­rier apiece, with Keene, N.H., cit­ing its an­nual pump­kin fes­ti­val as a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ism tar­get. (But, hey, who among us has never stretched the truth when try­ing to get a cool toy out of a rich un­cle?)

The ACLU com­piled its re­port us­ing data from de­part­ments across the coun­try, but Pitts­burgh po­lice de­nied the re­quest for in­for­ma­tion. The ACLU is ap­peal­ing that de­ci­sion in court.

Some peo­ple see “ACLU” and think “lib­eral,” but Pres­i­dent Ei­sen­hower wasn’t the last con­ser­va­tive to ques­tion mil­i­tary over­reach on the home front. Lib­er­tar­i­ans and fis­cal con­ser­va­tives with an eye on the def­i­cit have ques­tioned why big gov­ern­ment has “in­cen­tivized the mil­i­tariza­tion of lo­cal po­lice,” as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote.

The ACLU sought its info be­cause heav­ily armed SWAT teams across the coun­try have made raids that have killed or harmed in­no­cents. (A Car­rick woman, Geor­geia Moreno, sued the city in fed­eral court af­ter around a dozen of­fi­cers in SWAT gear raided her home in 2010 look­ing for her hus­band, who had been in a bar fight with an off-duty of­fi­cer the night be­fore. Ms. Moreno said po­lice point­ing “as­sault ri­fles’’ broke down the bath­room door and pulled her 10-year-old son from the shower and ques­tioned him while he was na­ked. Trial is set for Oc­to­ber.)

At a min­i­mum, we ought to know what kind of mil­i­tary hard­ware Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers have put into the hands of lo­cal law en­force­ment. De­fense Depart­ment data show ev­ery­thing from bay­o­nets ($25.69) to a mine-re­sis­tant ve­hi­cle ($733,000) shipped to de­part­ments in Al­le­gheny County, but the city told the ACLU last year that “the re­quested records, to the ex­tent they ex­ist, are not pub­lic.”

It’s hard to see why.

“Do you think peo­ple aren’t go­ing to do some­thing just be­cause you have a $733,000 ar­mored per­son­nel car­rier?” Vic Wal­czak, le­gal di­rec­tor of the Penn­syl­va­nia ACLU, asked.

Ste­phen Bu­car, Mayor Bill Peduto’s pub­lic safety di­rec­tor who be­gan work in June, isn’t any more forth­com­ing than his pre­de­ces­sor. Mr. Bu­car said through a spokes­woman last week that it’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate to com­ment while the ACLU is ap­peal­ing in court.

Mr. Peduto, who pledged an open gov­ern­ment, could make that ap­peal moot by re­leas­ing info in the way that fed­eral, state and other city gov­ern­ments have.


Brian O’Neill: boneill@post-ga­zette.com or 412-263-1947.

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