We understand why it might strike some as wrong to let local police departments use surplus military equipment.
One of the most basic tenets of our democracy is that the military must not be used against its own people. And we get that with police officers who increasingly look like soldiers, it can make some wonder if that principle still holds.
That said, when the emotion has passed, we all must acknowledge that the equipment any police department uses is only a tool. Whether it’s used responsibly has everything to do with who is using it and nothing to do with the tool.
Here in Weld County, we’ve seen police use the surplus military equipment responsibly, and we suspect that’s largely the case across the country.
The gear comes courtesy of the federal government’s 1033 program. The program allows local law enforcement agencies to receive free equipment the military no longer is using. Last month, President Donald Trump lifted restrictions placed on the program in 2015, meaning local law enforcement will have more access to surplus military gear.
The equipment doesn’t include things like stealth bombers or nuclear submarines. Mostly it’s innocuous stuff like generators, night-vision goggles, forklifts or shop tools. Sometimes it includes guns or armored vehicles. The Greeley Police Department received one such vehicle. It’s big and imposing, with waist-high wheels. It was designed to transport soldiers to combat through IED-infested streets in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it serves a different purpose here. It can provide cover for SWAT officers as they approach a building where there is an active shooter. It also can help save residents’ lives.
The truck could pull up between a victim and a shooter to provide cover while paramedics load the injured person inside, for example.
“We use the vehicle as an ambulance,” Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner said, “but it’s an armored vehicle.”
Elsewhere, similar armored vehicles find similar uses. They’re large with high profiles, which means they can navigate over all kinds of terrain and go places other vehicles can’t. That’s important during natural disasters. They’re often used to rescue stranded residents.
Yuma County Sheriff Chad Day relies on the 1033 program because in a county of about 10,000 people, there simply aren’t the funds available to buy the equipment his deputies need if it doesn’t come free from military surplus. He can remember multiple instances in the past year in which a person barricaded themselves in a building with a gun and threatened to shoot officers.
“All of law enforcement wishes we didn’t need it, but we get shot at sometimes,” Day said. “It sucks. I hate it, but it’s where we’re at right now.”
That’s pretty much how we feel about it. We wish this equipment weren’t needed. In fact, we wish our military didn’t need it, but the equipment is needed. Since it must exist and must be used, we would rather see the equipment flow into our local communities where it can do some good than rust in some federal junk yard. We want our police officers to stay safe.
Like all the equipment we give our police officers, they must use these tools responsibly. But so long as the tools are used well, we think it makes sense to use them to help keep our community safe after they’ve reached the end of their useful life keeping our country safe.
— The Tribune Editorial Board
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