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Courts and Crime

Are Police Becoming too Militarized? Maine ACLU Raises Concerns

PORTLAND, Maine - War-zone-like images of Ferguson, Missouri - where unarmed black teen Michael Brown was recently shot to death by a white police officer - are raising questions about the militarization of police. As violent protests have erupted, police armed in tactical gear have deployed military style vehicles and weapons to disperse crowds. Police departments across the country, including here in Maine, have obtained excess military vehicles since the 1990s. Now, some members of Congress are calling for an end to the practice.

The short answer is it's not quite clear how much military equipment is being used by Maine law enforcement. Rachel Healy of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says that's part of the problem.

"The ACLU of Maine has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with multiple police departments in Maine to determine the extent of militarization. Unfortunately, we were told that much of that information was confidential and would need to be redacted, that it would cost thousands of dollars to obtain."

The ACLU of Maine made the requests more than a year ago. The national ACLU has since published a report in June about what it calls the excessive militarization of American policing.

Healy says for the past two decades, billions of dollars worth of military property have been transferred from the federal government to state and local police departments. "The police in America have become too militarized," she says. "Neighborhoods are not war zones, and police officers should not be treating us like war-time enemies."

Military equipment can be transferred through Homeland Security grants or something called the 1033 program. Police departments apply for equipment and, if approved, only pay the cost of shipping.

Healy says she knows for certain the Portland Police Department acquired an armored mini tank called a BearCat in 2012. The Lewiston Police Department subsequently inherited Portland's old M13 armored personnel carrier. Robert Schwartz of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association says more police departments have embraced the program.

"There are probably a half a dozen or so, maybe more, that have got vehicles, weapons, things like that under the law," Schwartz says.

The Oxford County Sheriff's Department was hoping to add an armored personnel carrier to its fleet last year, but had to put the plan on the back burner when the cost to ship it from Colorado proved too pricey. Chief Deputy Hart Daley says the vehicle would have been useful this past weekend in an armed standoff in Mexico.

And Daley remembers a past incident where a woman had been shot by her son, "and laid in the driveway for hours because nobody could safely approach the residence because there was an armed individual in the house that the police were dealing with. Had they had an armored vehicle at their disposal at that time, they may have been able to drive up and evacuate her and given her medical attention, and kept her alive."

But after seeing images of community members in Ferguson, Missouri clashing with heavily-armed police, several members of Congress are now calling for a review of the federal military equipment program, or to even end it. Daley says that's a knee-jerk reaction to a program that goes far beyond distributing armored vehicles that would otherwise be destroyed.

The Oxford County Sheriff's Department has received a range of different types of gear, including jackets, boots, cameras, and first aid equipment, that it considers essential. "I mean, I'm sitting here staring at a box of tourniquets," Daley says. "They're probably $30 to $50 each if you purchase them."

Daley says the goal with all of this is not to militarize, but to be safe. But the ACLU of Maine's Rachel Healy says there's a fine line. "Having this sort of equipment on hand puts the police in the position of being able to act as military," she says. "So even if we aren't seeing that, the capacity is certainly there."

Healy says states should enact laws to require more transparency when police acquire military equipment, and implement safeguards to ensure it's being used properly.