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NM a leader in police militarization

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If you think local police look increasingly like soldiers armed for battle instead of civil servants responsible for protecting you, it’s not your imagination.

As noted in the Journal’s recent three-part series analyzing “mission creep” at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the federal government funnels millions of tax dollars to local police departments in the form of grants used to buy high-powered paramilitary style weapons and other gear.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are also tapping into a military surplus program to acquire Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly – some would say disturbingly – New Mexico police departments, representing one of the nation’s least populous states, have acquired more of these fearsome-looking armored vehicles than any other state, according to a New York Times analysis.

In an article published this month, the Times found that there are at least 42 MRAPs now stationed at New Mexico law enforcement agencies.

Texas – with 37 – had the second-largest number. The article explains that the military transfer program was created in the early 1990s, when violent crime was skyrocketing in American cities and police felt “outgunned by drug gangs.”

“Today, crime has fallen to its lowest levels in a generation, the wars have wound down, and despite current fears, the number of domestic terrorist attacks has declined sharply from the 1960s and 1970s,” the article said. “Police departments, though, are adding more firepower and military gear than ever.”

The Indianapolis Star newspaper this month quoted Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer explaining in stark, frightening detail the mindset behind his department’s decision to acquire an MRAP.

“The United States of America has become a war zone,” Gayer said. “There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

No law-abiding citizen wants police officers gunned down – and MRAPs can help prevent fatalities at the scene of a mass shooting – but seriously, Sheriff Gayer? America has become a war zone?

Albuquerque and Washington, D.C., both have high crime rates compared to national averages. I spend a lot of time in the urban core of both cities and at no time do I feel like I’m in Fallujah or Kandahar.

I can’t imagine Pulaski County, Indiana – population 13,402 – resembles a “war zone.”

The sheriff’s incendiary rhetoric fuels an “us-against-them” perception amongst the very people the cops are supposed to protect. Tragically, nowhere is that perception more evident than in the beautiful high desert city of Albuquerque, where police have killed 26 people in the past four years.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It’s a sobering analysis (read it at aclu.org) of the increasingly violent and invasive techniques police are using, especially in the war on drugs.

The ACLU report calls for the federal government to rein in the incentives for police to militarize. The civil liberties group also asks that local, state and federal governments track the use of SWAT raids, and the guns, tanks and other military equipment that end up in police hands.

The Journal series found accounting for federal money spent on homeland security in New Mexico seriously lacking.

“Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies,” the ACLU report says. “However, the ACLU encountered this type of story over and over when studying the militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies.”

Obviously, New Mexico is not exempt.

“The national trend of police militarization is clearly felt here in New Mexico,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU of New Mexico. “We have towns like Farmington operating armored vehicles and the Albuquerque Police Department shooting civilians at alarming rates.

“This military mindset, coupled with assault-style tactics and weapons, positions the public as the enemy, rather than human beings they have sworn to serve and protect.”

Email: mcoleman@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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