At War in our Neighborhoods

In 2012, the Portland Police Department acquired a Lenco BearCat, which is essentially an armored, four-wheeled mini-tank with a turret and spaces to fire guns out the sides. The $270,000 price tag paid for by a federal Port Security Grant.

After that acquisition, Lewiston inherited Portland’s old M113 Armored Personnel Carrier, which is the same machine used by the U.S. military in the jungles of Vietnam.

The South Portland, Brunswick, Sanford, and Old Orchard Beach police departments all have Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, as do the sheriff’s departments in Cumberland, Franklin, and Oxford Counties. These MRAP vehicles come equipped with a turret at the top for a gunman.

Every year, billions of dollars worth of funding and military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. This money and weaponry comes from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice. It allows local police to stockpile wartime arsenals.

The truth is, we don’t even know the full extent of federal defense dollars flowing into Maine police forces. A year ago, the ACLU of Maine filed FOIA requests with multiple police departments in Maine to determine the extent of militarization, and we were told that much of the information was confidential and would need to be redacted, and that it would cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to obtain.

While the flow of federal money has been happening since 9/11, interest has peeked in recent days due to the tragic events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. In Ferguson, police officers treated their fellow citizens, who were engaging in peaceful protest, like wartime enemies. Even Missouri’s own governor agrees this was an over-reaction on the part of the police. The police’s job in these situations is to deescalate, but instead they have contributed to an escalation of violence.

Unfortunately, as a recent ACLU report makes clear, this is not atypical, but is instead part and parcel of the increasing militarization of policing in America. It is a relentless and long-standing problem, and one that has targeted communities of color. The militarization of police goes hand in hand with racialized policing - the constant targeting of black men and even the disregard for their lives. Just this summer no less than six black men have been killed by police in America, in circumstances that suggest excessive use of force and likely racial profiling. 

While we haven’t seen a situation approaching what’s happened in Ferguson here in Maine, the steady collection of military vehicles means the capacity exists. And Mainers should be very, very concerned. As the Portland Press Herald editorialized today, “Civilian leaders should ask themselves how they would feel if pictures like those from Ferguson were shot in their hometown. They should consider whether that kind of confrontation would have been likely or even possible if police had used traditional police equipment and tactics.”

At the very least, we should demand more transparency and reporting on the use of paramilitary policing. We have a right to know how we are being policed. We should also demand strong, clear guidelines on the way this equipment is used. We need safeguards to ensure military weapons are not used in a way that intimidates people or makes them less safe. And we should demand an end to racial profiling in policing.

Of course we want our police to have the equipment they need to safely do our jobs. But we must remember what that job is: to serve and protect communities, not to wage war on the people who live in them.

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