Rutland, VT Herald and Barre, VT Times-Argus
September 21, 2014 Op Ed
by Bradley D. Myerson
The heavy-handed police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo. has, appropriately, caused the Herald, Times Argus and other media outlets throughout the country to question the growing militarization of civilian law enforcement. What the papers failed to mention was that right here in rural, low-crime Vermont, state and local police forces have also become militarized in their operations.
For starters, the state police recently obtained a heavily armored military-style vehicle from the Department of Homeland Security. It is believed this was the same type of vehicle used by police in Ferguson to beat back protestors. Since civil unrest is virtually non-existent in our peaceful little state, one must wonder what possible use there could be for this piece of military hardware. My suggestion: Use it as a rolling homeless shelter.
Another example of the militarization of Vermont law enforcement was the excessive show of force by police in using military-type helicopters during recent drug "sweeps" in Bennington and Rutland. Looking upward and seeing those menacing aircraft hovering close by, residents must have felt they were living in battle-torn Ukraine or in Syria. What purpose was served by this show of force, other than to intimidate the populace? The same could be said for the black-clad and helmeted officers "on the ground" who participated in these operations.
Such over-the-top military-style police tactics are not limited to large-scale drug enforcement operations. During a recent execution of a search warrant in a quiet Manchester neighborhood, an estimated 20 fully armed police officers (some equipped with shotguns) stormed a house occupied by four young people who police had to reason to believe had either guns nor any history of violence. Unsurprisingly, the search turned up only miniscule amounts of marijuana.
A more familiar and repetitive quasi-military exercise by Vermont law enforcement is the use of roadblock — excuse me "checkpoint" — which have become increasingly commonplace. During these operations, thousands of innocent travelers are stopped without any suspicion of wrongdoing to be asked where they were coming from, where they were going, whether they had been drinking and to see if they are wearing seatbelts. This monstrous violation of the right to be left alone brings to mind Gaza and other war-torn areas in the Middle East.
Of course, the average Vermont police car, a bulked-up SUV, bristles with expensive equipment which usually includes license plate readers, which analyze and store in a central repository data about thousands of vehicles driven by law-abiding citizens. Each license plate reader, by the way, costs over $1,000 per year to maintain.
As the Herald and Times Argus have properly asked, do we truly need such an overwhelming level of militarization for Vermont police? In an era of tight budgets, can we justify the outsized expense necessary to sustain the militarization of Vermont law enforcement? Recognizing the chilling effect on our civil liberties, couldn't at least some of these funds instead be used for more socially beneficial purposes?
Bradley D. Myerson