Some backstory on the militarization of our police

Last week, while I was out of town for a family Thanksgiving, Mark Davis wrote a nice little story in Seven Days about Vermont police agencies picking up a whole lot of military-grade weaponry, thanks to a federal program designed to shore up military contractors’ bottom lines provide local police with “military equipment left over from America’s foreign wars and stockpiles.”

Which brought to mind some of my own past coverage of specific events tied to this story: a small New Hampshire community talked into buying an assault vehicle by a Rush Limbaugh-listenin’, Tea Party-believin’ salesman, and the small-scale invasion of a small Vermont town.

Instrument of peace?

Instrument of peace?

First stop in the Wayback Machine is February 2012, when Keene, NH had received a $300,000 Homeland Security grant to buy an eight-ton armored vehicle called the Lenco Bearcat. This, for a city with a population of 23,000 and virtually no history of violent crime.

But there was all that federal money dangling in front of the city fathers…

During a City Council meeting, the Mayor was heard whispering to a City Councilor “We’re going to have our own tank.”

Better than Viagra. Of course, the grant won’t pay for operating costs like maintenance, training and insurance.

The most fascinating part of the story, to me, was Jim Massery, salesman for vehicle manufacturer Lenco. His pitch was laden with fearmongering about the need for high security everywhere. In fact, one of his quotes was the following:

I don’t think there’s any place in the country where you can say, “That isn’t a likely terrorist target.” How would you know?

There was a whole lot of that, and you can read more in my 2012 post on Green Mountain Daily. Massery, as I discovered, was a true-blue conservative who believed that President Obama was trying to steal our freedoms, and that the government was spending us into oblivion. And yet he had no problem helping the government militarize local police and wastefully spend $300,000 on a Lenco Bearcat that nobody needed. (The notorious Free Staters of Keene probably thought he was an enemy agent tasked with bringing the power of the police state to their own little community.)

One of Massery’s other pitches went like this:

When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages, it doesn’t show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator.

And, he might have added, that negotiator shows up in grand style, hunkered down in eight tons of steel. Which brings me to story #2. In June of 2012, a man named Alfred Perreault unknowingly touched off a minor invasion of his town of Washington, VT…

A summer scene befitting a Norman Rockwell portrait was spoiled Monday morning when more than a dozen police cruisers, an armored vehicle and the big box truck that houses Vermont’s equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team set up shop in Washington to take what proved to be one unarmed man into custody.

That armored vehicle was, as it happens, a Lenco Bearcat. Purchased by the Vermont State Police with, you guessed it, a Homeland Security grant.

Perreault was known to possess a goodly quantity of firearms, hence the heavy-handed police response. Which must have triggered (sorry) a sizeable panic reaction among townspeople who suddenly saw this caravan o’death roll into town and set up roadblocks.

It all ended peacefully. But as I wrote at the time, there’s an old saying: To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Our police agencies have been outfitted with military-grade, up-armored hammers. So naturally, Alfred Perreault looked like a nail.

It’s a lot easier for the authorities to escalate a response when they have the tools of escalation close at hand — indeed, when they may well feel a need to justify the purchase and upkeep of all those hammers. Alfred Perreault clearly needed to be dealt with. But did he warrant such a robust response?

You can bet we’ll be asking these kinds of questions again in the future.

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