Post-Keene, More on Police Militarization

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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.

Police Militarization, Missouri & New Hampshire

watching the crowd with rifles

Photo from Ferguson, MO by Jamelle Bouie, Creative Commons General License 2

Whether it takes place in Ferguson, Missouri or in New Hampshire, grants for acquisition of military equipment by local police are raising concern for civil liberties.

Just this July, Concord, NH took delivery of a $258,000 BearCat armored vehicle purchased with Homeland Security funding.  In its original 2013 grant request, Concord listed citizen groups Occupy NH and the Free State Project as “active and present daily challenges.” 

Devon Chaffee, Executive Director of the NH Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the grant application through a right-to-know request, commented. “In reading the application, I think the main and most prominent concern was the fact that the application cited nonviolent, ideological organizations like the Free Staters and the Occupy New Hampshire movement as a justification for needing the armored vehicle,” Chaffee said. “And it’s just not clear why an armored vehicle would be at all necessary to address these movements.”

In Manchester today, Republican Senator Rand Paul commented on acquisition of military equipment by local police.  Paul is just back from a visit to Ferguson, Missouri, where he spoke out against use of military equipment to respond to protests against the police shooting of Michael Brown in August.

Responding to a question by Eric Zulaski of the American Friends Service Committee this morning, Paul said “I’m on a committee that oversees this. We found out that a third of the military equipment is brand new. They call it a surplus program, but it’s brand new. So one of the questions that was asked, and I’m going to try to find the answer to this is, if it’s brand new, does that mean then that when we give it away as surplus, are we then buying more of it to replace it? Which sounds like a churning thing based on someone’s financial gain as opposed to what the country needs.”

Indeed.  And defense contractors who profit from the transfers have a lot of influence over Congress. An August analysis by Maplight revealed that representatives who voted to preserve the Department of Defense’s 1033 transfer program “have received, on average, 73% more from the defense industry than representatives voting to defund it.”

Concord’s BearCat appears to have been funded not by the 1033 program but by a Homeland Security grant program.  Nevertheless, we have to ask about the influence of defense contractors in promoting militarization of local police.  As Senator Paul told Zulaski today, “It says in the small print you’re not allowed to use it for riot control, yet they do anyway. That’s what it was out there for [in Ferguson]. It was for riot control, or protest control. I object to it and I’m going to try to change it if I can.”

For more on the militarization of local police in New Hampshire and elsewhere, check out the ACLU’s June 2014 report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

Meanwhile, if you go to the Keene, NH Pumpkin Festival on Saturday, you can feel safe from terrorists.  The Keene police cited the need to protect the festival as justification for purchasing a BearCat in 2012.