If they look menacing these days, it’s because circumstances have changed.
The irony of stacking police-related articles — “U.S. to review arming police” and “Slain cops now saving their own — on the Aug. 24 front page hopefully gave readers something to think about. The first article suggested that police have become too militarized with their “assault rifles,” body armor and armored vehicles. The second brought attention to Minnesota police officers killed in the line of duty and highlighted the deaths of St. Paul cops Ron Ryan Jr. and Tim Jones, who were killed 20 years ago this week. Readers may wonder how police officers can make their jobs safer while discarding modern tactics, strategies and equipment. And: Who will make these decisions?
No one argues the fact that police work is dangerous. When someone sets out to commit a violent act, whether that person is armed or not, the police are called to intercept, disarm and arrest using as little force as necessary. Nowadays, whether encountering active shooters at schools, irate neighbors or domestic abusers, police find many of the suspects armed with what the media define as assault rifles — rifles that are designed to be shot in semiautomatic mode (one bullet per trigger) with large-capacity magazines.
When I started my police career, I was issued a Smith and Wesson revolver. The squad cars were equipped with a Remington 870 pump shotgun. These weapons were very dependable, and the era of carrying them is remembered fondly by old-timers. Equipped with these guns and spare ammunition, the typical officer had a total of 18 rounds on his person and five to 10 rounds of shotgun ammunition in the squad car. (The typical Glock .40-caliber handgun issued by most modern police departments has 15 rounds in a single magazine.)
A famous robbery-turned-shootout in Miami in 1986 changed the arming of law enforcement officers forever. The suspects in this robbery had powerful, high-capacity semiautomatic handguns and rifles. The cops and FBI agents were badly outgunned, resulting in the deaths of two agents and multiple injuries to others before the incident was resolved.
Hopefully, readers see the logic in officers being armed as well as or better than criminals who set out to commit acts of violence prepared for the probable confrontation with police.
Let’s examine some of the police equipment that has been cited as being objectionable, starting with the defensive equipment.
First, wearing body armor is a no-brainer. Other than wearing seat belts, it’s saved more cops’ lives than any other equipment.
Second, armored vehicles are intended only for very specialized incidents. Not every police department needs one, but every department should have access to one if it faces an active shooter with hostages and a field of fire that prohibits police from approaching. Regular police vehicles are barely bullet-resistant.
Next, I’ve seen articles mentioning police toting grenade launchers. The only grenades being launched by police deliver smoke and gas rather than military explosives. They are used to disperse large groups of violent protesters in lieu of more direct (read: painful) tactics such as dogs, riot sticks, etc.
Now for the weapons: A police officer can hold only one at a time. A typical patrol officer carries a handgun, and possibly a stun gun on his duty belt for less-than-lethal situations. In a highly volatile situation like the one police in Ferguson, Mo. have been dealing with, protesters have threatened to kill police, have thrown Molotov cocktails at them and have outnumbered them at times by hundreds. The weapon favored in this situation is going to be a gun that can fire accurately at a distance, if necessary, or close up, and that has a magazine capacity large enough that the officer will be able to defend himself or others if confronted by a large group of armed suspects. This is a worst-case-scenario weapon, but police have found themselves in these situations, as they did in Miami.
Taking equipment away from police so they look friendlier during a riot would be ridiculous. Your average patrol officer looks about as friendly as you’re going to see a law enforcer. Though he can be fighting for his life at a moment’s notice, he is well-equipped and well-trained for most life threatening situations. This training and equipment will go only so far, as we have seen not only in Minnesota, but across the country, when police are killed.
However, riot control is something completely different. The police are positioned and equipped strategically to manage an extremely dangerous, volatile situation. They have reason to believe the crowds they are dealing with are willing and able to cause mass destruction, injury and loss of life if left to their own devices. The police are using special equipment to prevent injury and damage to property. If they appear menacing, it is only because circumstances have forced them to change from their normal appearance and duties in order to perform their mandate — keeping the peace.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is a retired cop, teacher and author.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.