There has been a lot of talk this past year, in the wake of Ferguson, about militarization of the police. Most of the commentary on this issue has focused around the acquisition by local police departments of surplus equipment from the armed forces. Police departments have been using military surplus equipment for decades. As a rookie officer in 1974, the S&W .38 revolver issued to me was stamped "U.S. Navy" on the back strap.
I see no major concern in police agencies taking advantage of this surplus gear, within reason. A few rifles, a truck, a night vision scope, or a HumVee doesn't really worry me. Police need this kind of equipment from time to time, and normally buy it (or something similar) brand new. If you can save a few tax dollars by reusing something the taxpayers have already purchased, that's generally OK with me. Look over the list of gear Nebraska agencies have received, and it's pretty typical stuff for which there are civilian counterparts: nobody is acquiring RPGs, mortars, and land mines.
The issue of militarization of the police that concerns me, rather than surplus equipment, is the intrusion of a war-fighting ethos into police culture that is not properly counterbalanced with an even stronger mentality of service and guardianship. There was an interesting article about this recently in the Harvard Law Review. I'm all for good training and tactics for protecting police officers from the risk of violent assault. Policing is one of only a handful of occupations with a sustained record of practitioners facing felonious attacks in the course of their employment. Safety is good. Better training and procedures, along with body armor, have dramatically reduced the number of officers killed in the line of duty in felonious assaults during my career.
But it is critical for police officers to recognize that the vast majority of citizens--rather than representing a threat to their safety--are firmly on our side, and depend on us from protection and service. The public is not the adversary. Many of those citizens would put themselves in harm's way without hesitation to help an officer in distress. When police officers begin to view citizens as a population of which they must be constantly wary, it is difficult to develop and sustain good relationships. Suspicion, distrust, and fear are corrosive to trust, collaboration, and partnership.
The line between good safety practices and good interpersonal relationships is a fine one, to be sure. I don't think relationships with the community are strained when a police SWAT team executes a high-risk arrest warrant. On the other hand, it's pretty tough (although not impossible) to have a friendly rapport with an officer decked out in fatigues, a load-bearing vest, and a slung MP5, which is why the drift towards military-styled language, BDUs, and tactical gear for street officers bothers me. It is the attitude and outlook behind the uniform, however, that matters most, and that one must be one dominated by the desire to protect and help others.