As the debate heats up, allow us to join in with those who question the unchecked deployment of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.
In Ferguson, a racially divided community of fewer than 22,000 people, the predominantly white police force deployed not one, but two, armored vehicles in dealing with protesters of a police shooting.
Both, along with a flatbed trailer and a generator, were acquired through a Defense Department program started in 1990 and now scheduled to be scrutinized in congressional hearings this fall.
This is important — not only for Ferguson, but also for Buchanan County and St. Joseph.
Buchanan County was the recipient of a surplus "mine-resistant" armored vehicle this spring. In multiple interviews, authorities have defended the acquisition — "free" to the county after the federal government replaced the engine and transmission in the 2010 model vehicle and made it available for adoption by domestic law enforcement agencies.
We had the obvious questions then, and still do:
By whose accounting does this acquisition come without cost when law enforcement agencies in every part of the United States are in line for as many as 13,000 decommissioned armored vehicles, all presumably subject to similar major repairs and upgrades before they are turned over?
It may in fact require the upcoming congressional hearings to fully understand the costs to taxpayers.
Why, even if the Special Response Team of St. Joseph and Buchanan County previously had an older, unreliable vehicle, does law enforcement need this now — particularly when the city already has a more sophisticated armored vehicle?
We don't doubt the sincerity of the explanation previously offered — "it's simply about our community's safety" — but rather the wisdom of those words. A better insight comes from the same spokesman's admission that officers had to weigh "Is this ridiculous to have?"
The officers decided it was not, but many others in our community questioned that assessment, and well before the Ferguson police showdown with protesters.
Which brings us to our final question: Where was the public's involvement in this decision?
Voters in St. Joseph approved replacement of the police department's tactical armored vehicle through the five-year capital improvements program. But countywide voters had no similar say in acquiring another armored vehicle for our county forces.
We need to learn from this episode, even as the larger debate on the militarization of law enforcement plays out. Policies governing appropriate deployment of the new vehicle, and records of how it actually is used, should be routinely evaluated with public input.
Copyright St. Joseph News-Press. Distributed by the Associated Press.