Reader's View: Military equipment can save lives as society grapples with issues

November 15, 2013 

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Boise police examine the agency’s new Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, a piece of military surplus that saw use overseas.

PROVIDED BY THE BOISE POLICE DEPARTMENT

A recent news story detailed how police departments across the nation (including Boise’s) are acquiring surplus military equipment to use as a resource in protecting citizens and officers. The story also raised the question: Are we are seeing the militarization of local police?

I think the answer lies not in the symbolism of a free vehicle, but in the substance of a police department’s actions every day.

I have a great deal of respect for our nation’s military, but our roles are clearly different: The military fights threats from outside of our country; police protect and serve citizens in our local communities. Our traditions, uniforms, and titles are superficially similar, and we both pledge our allegiance to our nation and take oaths to serve our citizens. But in a free society, “policing” means building partnerships with our community to seek voluntary compliance with our laws and to solve problems. Our authority comes from laws, but our legitimacy comes from the trust placed in us by those we serve.

I have shared my views on policing with the community many times in various public venues. You’ve never heard me talk the tough rhetoric about the “war on drugs” or the “fight” against this or that kind of crime. I’ve made clear my concerns about drones and police surveillance, and my steadfast belief in preserving the rights important to all of us for living in a free society. Police don’t engage in war or declare public fights. Yes, we enforce laws, but we are, more importantly, problem-solvers and peacekeepers.

Our commitment to protecting the constitutional rights of our citizens is often tested — and the public’s perception of that commitment is shaped — by how we handle public protests. I also questioned other police agencies’ practices and leadership after a nationwide manhunt for a former California police officer used such extreme measures as firing into cars occupied by ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly violent society. Boise hasn’t made national news for murder and mayhem, but we’ve had our stories, too. Just because we’ve avoided major headlines doesn’t mean we don’t see issues on the horizon that could affect our safety. Why is it that our laws don’t keep deadly weapons (guns and cars) out of the hands of the mentally ill or those who intend to harm our government and its most visible forms of authority? Why is it that guns made exclusively for the military are available in society for general use? When society addresses these issues and others equally important to public safety, there won’t be a need for police departments to acquire surplus armored vehicles.

Until that day comes, my obligation is to protect citizens and officers who intentionally place themselves in harm’s way to protect you. For the last two decades, the Boise Police Department has used a makeshift standard cargo van draped with “tactical blankets” as a way to get to active-shooter situations so officers can end the threat or rescue others. But today we need something to stop high-caliber bullets and bombs. The surplus mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP) that the department has accepted from the U.S. military serves that need. It will effectively stop a man armed with a rifle as well as it did a terrorist’s bullet. And although the MRAP is a huge, menacing-looking vehicle, it’s a lot better to use it for saving lives than to keep it in mothballs.

Mike Masterson is Boise's chief of police.

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