What Can Austin Learn From Ferguson?

RECEIVED Fri., Aug. 15, 2014

Dear Editor,
    This week, the rioting in Ferguson, Mo. has stirred up many hot topics across the country. Racial inequality, police brutality, free speech, freedom of the press, and police militarization have provided images in American streets, which just last week seemed like something that only occurred in far-off places like the Gaza Strip or Iraq. Just as those presumptions were premature, so is the naivety that what is happening in Ferguson couldn’t happen here in Texas; specifically, the militarization of the police.
    Some of the most shocking images of the riots in Ferguson are those of American citizens standing before armored police vehicles with M-16s pointed at them by police officers who look more like soldiers than peacekeepers. Austin KXAN reported this week that the APD, through the Texas 1033 Military Surplus Property Program, has procured surplus equipment from the U.S. military, including M-14 rifles and Kevlar helmets. The Texas 1033 program allows law enforcement agencies across the state to purchase surplus equipment from the Department of Defense. The Department of Homeland Security provides grants for law enforcement agencies across the nation to purchase similar equipment. In May, Austin City Council approved up to $270,000 for the APD to purchase a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, in addition to the two armored military-style vehicles the APD currently possesses.
    Mayor Lee Leffingwell stated that such an armored vehicle is intended for SWAT use during an incident such as a hostage situation, but could not provide any examples. Yet, according to a recent study by the ACLU, from 2011-12, just 7% of SWAT raids that use such vehicles were for “hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.” The ACLU study found that armored personnel vehicles used by police departments are commonly used on drug raids. Every year, police departments across the country are bulking up and obtaining more and more military-grade equipment, but for what reason?
   The United States already possesses the greatest military in the world; why do we need to build local militia amongst our police departments? The police are meant to protect and serve our communities, not secure war zones. The APD mission statement is “to keep you, your family, and our community safe.” Well, I, my family, and my community won’t feel very safe when we see a police department rolling down Congress Avenue in an armored vehicle, dressed like Navy Seals to address a group of concerned citizens voicing their disapproval. There will be many lessons to be learned from Ferguson, some more important than the issue of militarizing the police, but it’s a lesson we can do something about before it gets out of hand.
Shane R. Saum
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