War comes to Pulaski County, Indiana

Over the weekend Mark Alesia at the Indianapolis Star looked at the bounty of surplus military gear being snapped up by Indiana police departments, courtesy of the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Much of Alesia’s piece focuses on the acquisition of Mine Resistant Ambush Proof armored personnel vehicles by rural Indiana counties, an issue we’ve covered pretty extensively here at The Watch. But there were a few bits from the article that I think are worth addressing in more detail.

“We don’t have a lot of mines in Johnson County,” confessed Sheriff Doug Cox, who acquired the vehicle. “My job is to make sure my employees go home safe.”

This idea of “whatever we need to do to go home safe at night” has essentially replaced “protect and serve” as the primary mantra in many law enforcement agencies. It’s a mentality more suited for a battlefield than for a peace officer. Sheriff Cox’s job, in fact, is to protect and serve the people of Johnson County. It is to keep them safe, and to protect their rights. Keeping his officers safe is of course important, but it’s secondary. And if the two conflict, the citizens’ rights and safety take priority. Now, there’s a debate to be had about whether using equipment designed for war in domestic policing jeopardizes the rights and safety of U.S. citizens. But we can’t really even have that debate if law enforcement leaders believe that citizens’ rights are secondary to the safety of police officers.

Johnson County is one of eight Indiana law enforcement agencies to acquire MRAPs from military surplus since 2010, according to public records obtained by The Indianapolis Star. The vehicles are among a broad array of 4,400 items — everything from coats to computers to high-powered rifles — acquired by police and sheriff’s departments across the state.

That’s just in one state, over the last four years. And it doesn’t include Homeland Security grants given to these police agencies to buy yet more military-grade gear.

Even in Pulaski County, population 13,124, a more military approach to law enforcement is needed these days, Gayer suggested.

“The United States of America has become a war zone,” he said. “There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

This is where the debate gets downright ridiculous. The United States is not a “war zone.” Not even remotely. This is what a war zone looks like:

 


Debris at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo on June 2. (Nour Kelze/Reuters)

 

And this is Pulaski County, Indiana.

Pulaski County, Indiana courthouse. Wikimedia Commons.
Pulaski County courthouse. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Violent crime in America has been falling since 1994. Here’s what the homicide rate looks like, courtesy of the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

 

HomicideRate

 

This past weekend, there was an awful incident in which two people ambushed and killed two police officers in a Las Vegas restaurant. That would seem to be an indication that Gayer is correct. But it’s important to remember that we live in a country of more than 300 million people. That once incident isn’t indicative of a larger trend, nor would an MRAP or SWAT team have prevented it. Bad things are going to happen. But if we’re going to have an honest discussion of these issues, it ought to be based on data, at least to the extent that data are available. And the data tell us that violence against police officers has fallen off steeply since the 1970s, then again since the early 1990s. Here’s a chart I made a couple of years ago showing the rate at which cops are killed on the job, using data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics. (Note: The break indicates when the FBI switched to a different way of calculating these figures.)

CopDeathRate

That chart stops at 2009, but it’s worth noting that the 2012 was actually the safest year for police since 1959. Last year was then even safer. Just 100 police were killed on the job last year, the lowest total figure since 1944. When you convert that into a rate — that is, when you factor in how many cops are on the job now vs. then — the job of police officer is as safe as it has been in well over a century. And typically about 35 percent to 45 percent of on-the-job fatalities are due to car accidents, not homicides. And it isn’t just deaths. The rate of assaults on police officers is also in decline. According to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database, 10.2 percent of police officers were assaulted on the job in 2012. That’s the lowest figure in 40 years, and down from a high of 17.70 percent in 1992.

What about the mass shootings to which Sheriff Gayer alludes? Surely those are up, right? It seems like there’s a new one on the news every week. There’s more debate on this issue, mostly because of varying definitions of what qualifies as a mass shooting. But James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University, studies school violence. Here’s what he wrote about the frequency of mass shootings shortly after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy in December 2012.

Over the past three decades, there has been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in the United States, each with at least four victims killed by gunfire. Occasionally, and mostly by sheer coincidence, several episodes have been clustered closely in time. Over all, however, there has not been an upward trajectory. To the contrary, the real growth has been in the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage, thanks in large part to technological advances in reporting.

So mass shootings aren’t on the rise. We’re just hearing more about them when they occur, which can make it seem like they’re happening more frequently. From what I can tell, Pulaski County had one homicide in 2012. Records over the past decade or so are a little spotty, but it looks like there was one homicide between 2003 and 2008. On the Sperling’s BestPlaces violent crime scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most violent, Pulaski County rates a 2. If this is a war zone, I don’t think the English vocabulary is capable of properly describing, say, Aleppo.

This isn’t just a matter of semantics. Police leaders who genuinely see themselves at war with the people they serve will inevitably treat those people not as citizens with rights, but as enemy combatants. It is this mentality that gives us incidents in which cops can casually toss an explosive devise into a toddler’s playpen, all over a $50 meth sale with no real follow-up investigation, then get defensive when criticized about the incident. That is the consequence of a law enforcement mentality that views U.S. neighborhoods as war zones and that prioritizes the safety of police officers over the rights and safety of citizens.

The Star piece goes on to describe other Indiana towns that have received Pentagon gear, including Mooreland (population: 367), and Walkerton (population: 2,247), which received “two Humvees, four M16 rifles and holographic sights for the rifles.”

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · June 9