On Friday, October 17, I ended a blog post on police militarization with a flippant remark ridiculing the need to protect the Keene, NH Pumpkin Festival from terrorists.
Well, everybody knows, or thinks they know, what happened in Keene Saturday night. Local and state police brought out riot gear to respond to out-of-control partying by college students and others. The students certainly weren’t terrorists, but police feared that violence would spill over to the Pumpkin Festival itself.
So I wondered if I needed to rethink my blog post. I did some research and here’s some follow-up information.
The Keene police did not use their BearCat armored vehicle on Saturday night. As police elsewhere have said, crowd control is not an appropriate use for armored vehicles. Earlier this month, Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief Mike Koval said of his department’s BearCat, “It’s only going to be used under the strictest protocol and certainly crowd control is not on that list.”
But what about about the broader issues? Is public life becoming so dangerous that police, even in a quiet town like Keene, have to be ready with a military response to local violence?
Not so fast. It turns out that the popular impression of what happened in Keene, while shocking, may not be the whole story. An article in the Guardian gives another perspective, reporting that some witnesses believed the police reaction made the situation worse.
According to the Guardian, “The crowd’s behaviour was alcohol-fuelled and rowdy before the police arrived, but it was ‘normal college rowdy’, said Colin Middleton, a student at Keene State who witnessed the event. When the police turned up, Middleton said, ‘they formed a riot line, pushed everybody on to campus. They just lined up. That’s when things really got rowdy.’ ”
The Guardian commented, “The central issue is not whether the police involved in the clashes behaved badly – by almost all accounts, officers responded well, under difficult circumstances – but whether a systemic culture of militarisation in American police makes situations like this worse.”
The article also quotes Walter Olsen of Cato Institute. “This is by no means the first time that low-level misbehaviour at colleges has been met with Swat-level response. It makes it more dangerous, not less, when police come in like an army rather than as fellow citizens.”
So no, what happened in Keene does not provide justification for purchase of the BearCat or militarization of local police in New Hampshire.