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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns
COLUMN

If trust fails, police gear’s irrelevant

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— Suddenly, wrapped in bullet-stopping armor and arriving with a rumble and a throaty diesel growl, America has a new paranoia: the militarization of local law enforcement. On the left and the libertarian right, hands are being wrung in righteous concern about the betrayal of Sir Robert Peel’s fundamentals of policing, up to and including his admonition that the best evidence of excellent law enforcement is when nobody notices it’s happening.

Of course, nobody much noticed — or paid proper attention, the argument goes — until the police in Ferguson, Missouri, responded with Pentagon hand-me-downs to riots and looting that gashed their previously unknown town in the wake of an unarmed black teen being shot to death by a white police officer nearly two weeks ago. Now alarm rages that civilian peacekeepers would hit the streets of Anytown, USA, with anything besides service revolvers and nightsticks.

The concerns, which carry merit, include that military gear, from weaponry to body armor to rolling stock, puts unwarranted distance between civilians and police; emboldens cops to act rashly; and exacerbates already tense conditions, such as we’ve seen in Ferguson. (Not that backing off improved things, either.)

As we weigh their critiques, it’s fair to point out that the philosophers responsible for them — gifted thinkers all — type away in the comfort of air-conditioned offices far from crime zones, certain not only of their moment- to-moment safety, but also that their daily commute is virtually guaranteed to be a round trip and that the next time the telephone rings, it won’t be an invitation to face death.

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I tend to err on the side of letting law enforcement strap on and pack whatever (a) provides the broadest possible measure of safekeeping for our communities, (b) cultivates appropriate fear in contemplative lawbreakers and (c) enhances the likelihood of first-responders getting to go home at the end of their shifts.

If that means every law enforcement agency in the country gets a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, MRAP, or two in its fleet, fine by me. Better than letting them rot in the Mojave.

The Pasco Sheriff’s Office obtained its one and only MRAP last September. Since then, it has sat, mostly idle, on a concrete slab beneath an aluminum canopy downwind from the pigpen near the Land O’ Lakes Jail, dwarfing the rest of the specialty fleet, a 20-ton insurance policy on six massive Goodyear radials. Even so, Nocco considers the $2,000 acquisition fee money well-spent, as would any sensible person who pays premiums against catastrophe but is happy never to have filed a claim.

“It’s not the kind of thing you say, ‘Hey, let’s roll the MRAP out today,’ ” Nocco says. “It’s basically for that worst-case scenario. A disaster. A hurricane. We have to go in and rescue someone” — MRAPs are engineered to operate in 3 feet of water — “or a citizen is trapped, there’s shooting, and we need to get in there, to get between them and the shooter.”

The color of sand — it was deployed, originally, in Iraq — and rusty in spots, the beast with its armor plating, bulletproof glass and turret above the cab is a sight to behold.

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Motoring down from Fort Stewart, near Savannah, Detective Jay Blume, a 20-year Pasco Sheriff’s Office veteran, lost track of the number of youngsters who dropped their handheld games to stare.

Blume notes it’s not a performance machine. “It’ll do 65 [mph],” he says, “but it takes a long time to get there, and a long time to stop after it does.” Instead, it’s a mobile safety buffer designed to establish a screen between innocents and danger, and to help good guys do their work.

The only real question, then, is whether we trust those who are acquiring Pentagon castoff material to properly train, supervise, discipline and, if need be, punish those who are being invested with these tools of warfare. If we don’t, and where we don’t, we have far larger troubles than police armored up like human Robo-Cops.

Meanwhile, Nocco lives in dread of some hoped-against “bad day” at last arriving, and the MRAP rolling like Michael Bay’s imagination sprung to life. On that day, Nocco would rather explain that this is why he shopped at the military surplus store, rather than not have the right stuff and have to explain why he didn’t.

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