Utah police agencies address 'militarization' questions

By Dennis Romboy, Deseret News

Published: Fri, Aug. 15, 2014, 6:05 p.m. MDT

 Traffic officers Dan Willoughby and Matt Rhodes say goodbye to Ricardo Valesquez, Manuel Serrato, and Miguel Ramerez, as West Valley City police officers participate Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in a safety fair at Valley Fair Mall.

Traffic officers Dan Willoughby and Matt Rhodes say goodbye to Ricardo Valesquez, Manuel Serrato, and Miguel Ramerez, as West Valley City police officers participate Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in a safety fair at Valley Fair Mall.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Helmeted officers in camouflage and sharpshooters with automatic weapons atop a heavily armored vehicle descended on a small Missouri town this week to quell demonstrations against the police shooting of an unarmed teenager.

By some accounts, the show of force — including the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets — more resembled an invading army than local law enforcement. And it triggered a nationwide debate about the "militarization" of police departments.

Police agencies in Utah have some of the same weapons and vehicles as those on display in Ferguson. Some were acquired from the Department of Defense program that has transferred billions of dollars' worth of surplus military equipment to state and local agencies, which has now come under sharp criticism.

"I don't deny that the look and feel can seem militarized. It's a style that we have embraced," said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.

But, Winder said, how police agencies use the weaponry at their disposal comes down to "common sense," something he says seems to be lacking in the Missouri situation.

"Here, I can't even envision a time where we would do such a thing," he said.

West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said police have had to change their posture since 9/11. In the years that followed, he said, the government made available lots of militaristic weapons and vehicles so police agencies could be prepared for an event that requires their use.

"But it's a balancing act for us between being a community police department and an entity than literally can respond and defend them against a level of greater attack, whether it's a domestic attack or an international terrorism incident," he said.

The best way to deal with the issue is before a problem or incident happens, Russo said. Open communication among police, community leaders and residents is the key to not only understanding each other but also building trust and confidence, he said.

Russo said life imitates Hollywood and, in this case, the 1987 movie "RoboCop" where police donned battle dress uniforms, exterior ballistic vests and helmets.

"Lo and behold, here we are 20 or 30 years later and we're starting to see our uniforms out here in the real world look very much like that and us have a posture very much like that," he said.

That's why, Russo said, it's incumbent on police administrators to continually remind their officers that they're service providers, that they're here to help protect and honor the rights of residents.

The Davis County Sheriff's Office is among several Utah police agencies that owns an armored vehicle known as a BearCat. Sheriff Todd Richardson said it's used to protect officers in situations such as when a gunman has barricaded himself in a home.

"The general public will never see this type of equipment coming out against them," Richardson said.

The Unified Police Department, which Winder oversees, has an armored truck it recently obtained from the military. The sheriff said it would be a "rescue-oriented" vehicle used in conjunction with the fire department in situations, for instance, where someone is shooting at people. He said he sees that type of equipment as defensive, not offensive.

"I'm extremely sensitive to the realities that are present today," Winder said. "The thing I do not want to do is offend our community."

The Washington Post this week highlighted Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank's handling of the removal of Occupy Salt Lake protesters from Pioneer Park in 2011. Burbank and his officers showed up in everyday uniforms, not riot gear as police in other cities had.

Most of the 200 protesters left voluntarily, and some allowed the police to help them with their belongings. Nineteen chose to be arrested, but there was no rioting or violence.

“I just don’t like the riot gear,” Burbank told the Post. “Some say not using it exposes my officers to a little bit more risk. That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says, ‘Throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important. If one side overreacts, then it all falls apart.”

Contributing: Mike Anderson

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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1. Meckofahess
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 15, 2014

It appears that our local law enforcement leaders are suggesting they know how they would handle a difficult situation in a hypothetical estimate. I wonder how they would deal with dozens of protestors coming out at night and burning buildings, looting local businesses and throwing Molotov cocktails? I find it interesting how these protesters justify theft and destruction of property? Isn't that sort of pre-judging the outcome of an investigation and subverting the legal system?

2. Howard Beal
Provo, UT,
Aug. 15, 2014

Yes Robocop sort of predicted all of this but so did the simple but well done police drama Hill Street Blues when Howard Hunter's character, played by James B. Sikking, ascertained what was called an urban tank. Of course, the precinct chief Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) thought it was way over the top but now it appears these vehicles are necessary police equipment now.

But everyone is sort of late to this issue. Bill Maher on his HBO show did a whole segment on this. It seems again that the lame main street media is late again to the party.

3. My2Cents
Taylorsville, UT,
Aug. 16, 2014

Militarization is not only in the weapons and equipment they get its the combat training and attitude adjustment they get that citizen of america are now targets of opportunity and we are terrorist if we defend our selves from military police departments.

Homeland security is calling the actions of americans resisting the militarization of our police department as violence against the government when in fact its all about the revolt and our Right. To revolt against military sniping people on the streets like they are in Baghdad or Afghanistan. As the true law and order we american citizens are the militia who protect and defend against illegal and unconstitutional military police departments.

Obama brought the enemy to our country and now using them as justification to enact gun laws and militarization of police departments and calling citizens terrorist. We the people are the law, Obama is subject to our laws and permissions as long as he obeys and submits to our rights, freedoms, and liberties. And we have the right to disarm and overthrow all police department and government including the president terrorist as granted and declared by the Constitution we voted on and enact 238 years ago.

4. BU52
Provo, ut,
Aug. 16, 2014

When you have a hammer everything starts looking like a nail. This is just one sign that marks the beginning of the end of our civil society. When the people can't regulate themselves, as is evident in MO. then the government moves more toward's tyranny to protect and defend...something.

5. Dave T in Ogden
Ogden, UT,
Aug. 16, 2014

I believe Newton's 3 laws of physics apply to emotions. A nice smile or letting one in front of you in traffic (action) will be met with a smile or a wave in return (like but opposite reaction.) It seems there are momentum in emotions as well. It can be between individuals or groups of people, which includes hate and goodwill. The Ferguson story seems to be hate momentum at its worst. After having said that, they say if you do not know history, it will repeat itself. Remember "shock and awe", get tough 3 strikes and your out, and the war on drugs, it has not resulted in desired results. This is because of for every get tough (action,) will be met with like but opposite same push back (reactions.) As you continue with these policies, it will cause a hate momentum as a result. To solve this problem, you need to change hate to goodwill to make things work. Though this is like turning a big ship 180, it will take energy. As for the people not causing problems, you need to reach out to them (action). This will help turn this hate into goodwill.