The Bangor Police Department’s Facebook page has a following well beyond Bangor. So when the department on Sunday posted about its intentions to acquire a $200,000 armored vehicle, it became a nationwide debate about police protection and militarization.
“The price of such vehicles is well worth the money to protect the ones trying to protect us in the best possible way,” one commenter wrote.
“There is absolutely no reason to support this that I can see,” wrote another. “This is one of the safest cities in the world. We are not a war zone. And we don’t need our police to be militarized.”
The lines between police and military have indeed blurred in recent decades. But the acquisition of an armored vehicle on its own doesn’t mean that a local police force will become militarized.
Police militarization largely comes down to tactics.
In the mid-1980s, 30 percent of police agencies nationwide had SWAT teams specially trained to handle high-risk situations. By 2014, the share of police departments with SWAT teams — which take many of their cues from the military, including their appearance — had grown to well over 80 percent, Professor Peter Kraska of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University told a congressional committee in 2014.
The Bangor Police Department has employed a Special Response Team since the early 1990s, and the armored vehicle would provide protection for team members as they respond to particularly tense, violent situations.
“While formation of teams is an important indicator of growth” in police militarization, Kraska wrote in a 2007 paper, “these trends would mean little if these teams were relatively inactive.”
But while the specialized police units are formed ostensibly to handle the occasional, violent situation in which multiple lives are at risk, police agencies across the country have come to rely on them for more.
In the mid-1980s, Kraska’s research has revealed, police departments deployed their SWAT teams about 3,000 times per year. By 2014, the number had grown to exceed 60,000 — a number Kraska said is a conservative estimate. And SWAT teams most often — about 80 percent of the time — are conducting proactive, no-knock, residential drug raids, not responding to high-risk situations as originally envisioned.
“Numerous departments are choosing, based on political pressures, to generate on their own initiative high-risk events,” Kraska wrote.
But there’s no indication the Bangor Police Department is taking part in that trend — and that’s an important consideration in the debate about the department’s armored vehicle purchase request.
Bangor police have deployed their Special Response Team, on average, three to four times per year, according to police Chief Mark Hathaway. “In most instances our patrol officers are quick to resolve violent or potentially violent situations,” he wrote in an email. “In the instances where the situation presents more challenges we then employ our specialty unit.”
The police department would deploy the armored vehicle in a “situation involving actual violence, potential hostility or intense aggression, typically involving firearms or other weapons,” he said.
“The cost of the vehicle, while very expensive, will not dictate use,” he added.
It’s difficult to argue against a police department preparing for and doing what it can to keep officers safe during that once-in-a-lifetime violent situation a community hopes never to face.
The difficulty facing Bangor city councilors is striking a balance between a reasonable safety measure and preventing the police department’s militarization.
As residents, we would much prefer to interact with our police department through a friendly encounter on the street or through a laugh at the Bangor Police Department Facebook page than by seeing officers patrol the city in an armored vehicle.
To that end, if councilors approve the vehicle’s purchase, they should establish guidelines that limit its use to reactive situations. And they shouldn’t compel police to justify the vehicle’s cost once they’ve made the purchase — a mandate that could lead them to use an armored vehicle more than necessary and for reasons that weren’t envisioned when the city first created a specialized response team 25 years ago.