On Tuesday, many Lewiston residents attended their city's version of the annual National Night Out. The idea behind National Night Out is to provide a fun environment for Law Enforcement to connect with people in the communities that they serve. The intent is to help to create a sense of community and show people that police are people too and they are there to help. This year, Lewiston residents got a little surprise... or rather, quite a big surprise. A thirteen and a half ton war machine to be specific. On Tuesday at National Night Out, the Lewiston police unveiled their new tank: a 1981 M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. The M113 APC first saw action blasting through the jungles in Vietnam, and now may be seen thundering through the streets of Lewiston, Maine. Describing the tank's first public demonstration in Lewiston, the Sun Journal claimed that "[its] tracks on the pavement caused bones and teeth to rattle." While Lewiston may not have a reputation as the safest city around, I feel the question must be asked: "Is a tank really necessary?!"
In 2011 there was a total of 25 murders in the state of Maine. Of those 25 murders, 12 (less than half) were committed with firearms (information retrieved from the FBI's database). This low risk in the state of murder by firearm hasn't stopped cities from armoring up with high tech weapons of war. And why wouldn't they when the federal government is quite literally giving them away? This particular APC came from Portland, which first acquired it through a federal military surplus program. Why would Portland be just giving away their heavy armor (because without it they clearly couldn't protect the mean streets of Portland)? Well maybe it has something to do with the fact that last year around this time, Portland got a brand spanking new APC: a Lenco BearCat. The $270,000 sticker price on that was picked up by a FEMA Port Security Grant. The reasoning behind the purchase, according to Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck,was that the old tank's “armor plating … does not provide adequate protection against weapons and ammunition now available to the public." Mind you that inadequate armor is a 1/2 - 1.5 inch thick aluminum alloy that is as strong as steel. What exactly do they expect to run into in Portland, Maine that requires armor stronger than that? Unfortunately it doesn't matter. The federal government is always willing to spread the love around when it comes to handing out grants to local law enforcement agencies for shiny new military hardware. Of course these tanks and guns usually come with caveats: they need to be used. If the money was spent on a brand new APC and it doesn't get use, then it is unlikely that funding will come as readily in the future. Thus we see a dramatic rise in the use of war tools in drug raids across the country. This, in turn, just feeds into a snowballing level of incarceration of non-violent offenders.
This militarization of local and small town police forces is a current focus of the ACLU. A massive Freedom of Information Request was put in by ACLU affiliates around the country for information relating to this very disturbing trend. Learn more about this project here. These weapons of war are handed over entirely too easily to these police forces who often have neither the military training nor the need for killing machines such as these. There is essentially no oversight as far as what they use them for, the public seems to have no say in the fact that a tank is rolling through their streets. On the point of oversight, it is worth nothing that Lewiston's tank has been hailed by the police department not as a tank or killing machine, but as a rescue vehicle which would be of great service in rescue and hazardous-materials situations, and that it could have been of great use fighting a forest fire this spring along the power lines. Yet there is no assurance short of the department's claims on Tuesday that it wont be used for raids or any other purpose. Additionally, Police Chief Michael Bussiere stated that "if nothing else, the kids like it. It's a good community policing tool." Clearly I have a different understanding of community policing than Chief Bussiere. I see an event like National Night Out to be a good community policing tool. It humanizes the police and makes them approachable. I see a thirteen and a half ton war machine as a thirteen and a half ton war machine! It doesn't humanize the police, it doesn't make them approachable, it makes them seem more like soldiers than cops.
As long as government funds are being handed out in this manner, this trend of militarization of the police will only continue to get worse, incarceration will only continue to go up and people will only feel more unsafe walking down the street.