Military Equipment

A BAE Caiman 6-wheel drive armored vehicle is being housed at the Newington highway garage. Newington acquired the vehicle through a federal program that provides excess military hardware to state and municipal law enforcement agencies. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant / August 13, 2014)

Accepting surplus military equipment provided free by the U.S. Department of Defense is certainly cost-effective for local police departments. But great care must be taken that this equipment is used properly and sparingly, and only by those who are competently trained.

The Courant's Brian Dowling reported this week that some $12.9 million worth of military hardware has been sent to local police in Connecticut in the past five years under a Pentagon program. The equipment ranges from first-aid kits and tents to shotguns, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers and a helicopter.

Some 11 towns now have mine-resistant ambush-protected armored vehicles known as MRAPs, which sit in storage, waiting for an emergency.

The mere fact that MRAPs and M-16s are occasionally needed is the sad result of a domestic arms race, abetted by the National Rifle Association, that puts powerful weapons in the hands of far too many people. No one except law enforcement personnel and the military needs an assault-style rifle — but when large numbers of private citizens are so armed, police must do what they can to address the threat.

Police argue, with justification, that when a criminal suspect fires at them with a magazine-fed assault rifle, as happened in Newington in December 2004, they need more than a patrol car for protection.

Still, there are doubts that special equipment is always the answer. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said that, when it comes to school shootings, "there just aren't that many recent cases where a spree killer has gone down … in a hail of bullets that only a militarized police unit could deliver, or where specialized equipment has made all the difference."

In the face of the state's buildup of military equipment, some questions must be asked:

Are local police departments now overequipped? Given the hoped-for rarity of their use, two or three MRAPs, shared among departments, might well be all that's needed for the state. Having 11 such vehicles — all of which must be maintained, which carries an expense of its own — seems excessive. And their operators must be specially trained.

In what circumstances will this equipment be used? Police in Ferguson, Mo., confronted rioters using military equipment, further angering them and doing little to stem the burning and looting. Police need to look like police, not an invading army.

Commenting on the Ferguson situation, President Obama said that "one of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement." True. And as Connecticut police departments continue to accept outdated vehicles and other federal equipment, that important distinction risks further erosion.