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.