Police militarization barrier to community relations

Arming police with military-grade weapons creates barriers between law enforcement and the public they are supposed to protect, a high-ranking Reno police official told a Nevada advisory committee Thursday afternoon.

“This idea of militarization of police compromises a community-oriented police department’s effectiveness,” Reno Police Department Deputy Chief Tom Robinson said to the state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights.

The issue centers on local law enforcement agencies stocking up on military-grade weapons and equipment — such as assault rifles, grenade launchers and mine-resistant vehicles — that are often obtained through the Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program, known as the 1033 program, and paid for by federal grant money.

Robinson said that on top of the militarization, police training typically teaches officers how to protect themselves and how to look for potentially dangerous cues —such as where a person’s hands are during a confrontation — but neglects to teach them how to interact with those they protect. This kind of training, Robinson said, can lead officers to develop a “warrior mindset” that pits officers against citizens.

Militarization came under fire in recent weeks during unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, and touched off violent confrontations between armed police and protesters and rioters.

More than $4.3 billion worth of surplus equipment has been distributed to nearly 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country since the inception of the 1033 program in 1994.

Many counties throughout Nevada, including Elko, Lyon and Washoe, have used the program to obtain an $800,000 mine resistant ambush protected, or MRAP, vehicle.

Agencies obtained other equipment and supplies other than weapons from the program, such as file cabinets, desks and first-aid kits, and in Metro’s case, two Huey helicopters for the Search and Rescue squad.

Former president of the Reno chapter of the NAACP Lonnie Feemster wonders what adding military-grade weapons to police forces has done to places such as Ferguson.

“What does this do to people when they have this overwhelming power in front of them?” Feemster asked.

Feemster said a dialogue between police and communities is needed, which he hopes can be started through the advisory committee.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a bipartisan agency that investigates and studies civil rights issues and how they affect American citizens.

The Nevada Advisory Committee provides a forum for community members to discuss issues and concerns of a particular problem — in this case the militarization of local police agencies. The volunteer members of the committee include Nevada civil rights activists, academics, and legislators.

The committee will meet again next month to discuss a plan to examine the issue.

Those looking to voice their opinion on the issue to the committee have until Sept. 22 to send letters to: Western Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 300 N. Los Angeles St., Suite 2010, Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Contact reporter Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Find him on Twitter: @ColtonLochhead.