The front page of last Tuesday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch carried a startling photo: Richmond police officers taking a suspect into custody. What was startling was the display of force. The officers, accompanied by a robot and decked out in full riot gear with shield and combat helmets, could have been mistaken for American soldiers on patrol in Iraq. Yet they were going up against a single man—and they were not even sure was armed.
Regrettably, this is not a new development. In recent years police forces across the country have become increasingly militarized.
To a small degree, that trend represents a rational response in an arms race against the criminal element’s escalating firepower. But more of it has to do with the lavishing of federal Homeland Security funds on local law-enforcement agencies. Local departments have used the money to buy themselves all kinds of fancy toys—from the Segways bought for the bomb squad in Santa Clara, Calif. several years ago to the Lenco BearCat G3 bought last year by the sheriff’s department in Warren County, Va.
The BearCat G3 is an 8-ton armored personnel carrier. Its half-inch steel plating and 2.5-inch window glass can stop a .50-caliber round. Its sensors can detect chemical, biological, and radiological threats. “It’s big enough to go through a house if it had to,” says the department’s Roger Vorous. Warren County bought the quarter-million-dollar vehicle with a Homeland Security grant.
“We’re in a very dangerous business,” Sheriff Daniel McEathron told the Northern Virginia Daily last year. “We’re not interested in leveling the playing field. We’re interested in having the high ground.”
He’s got a point: Police officers should not have to bring a knife to a gunfight. On the other hand, Warren County, which boasts that its “small-town charm” makes it “an excellent place to raise a family,” has a population of fewer than 40,000. It averages about one homicide every three years. Insurgents have not detonated a roadside bomb in Warren County since—well, never. The need for an armored assault vehicle would seem scant.