Local politics can be weird.
Correction: local politics are like national politics in microcosm.
Including all the weirdness.
At the end of February, I attended a Public Safety meeting at City Hall in my town about the police buying a BearCat (an armored vehicle) for the department’s Critical Incident Response Team (their equivalent of SWAT). I’m generally against the militarization of police forces in America, so I was more than a little concerned.
The meeting started simply enough.
The main concern of the committee was that they felt the police department had failed to properly inform the public about the purchase and their reasons for it. They hadn’t gone out of their way to keep a secret, but nobody likes to find out about this sort of thing at the last minute, especially if you’re part of a group historically targeted unjustly by police departments in America. The local chapter of Black Lives Matter was not happy about the purchase, but they were even less thrilled with what they saw as a lack of transparency.
The committee gave the police chief the floor first to explain himself.
To his credit, he made a compelling case.
He tried to say that his department had dropped the ball as far as communicating with the community, and that the concerns of groups like BLM were entirely fair, but he was firm that the department still needed some kind of armored vehicle for the CIRT.
When he was done, even I was just about convinced that the purchase would probably be fine.
But something came up when the committee asked questions that seemed like a major red flag. When asked what the guidelines were for how/when this vehicle would be used, as a major concern of BLM and the community at large was that this vehicle might be used to break up protests in town, the police chief’s response was…less than ideal.
He at first assured the community that his department had a long history of respecting protests (which, to be fair, they do) but when pressed on specific guidelines that would govern the vehicle’s use, he simply said that no specific guidelines exist as “We don’t have the vehicle yet.”
Now, call me paranoid, but that is an answer that raises more questions than it answers.
If the community is concerned about how you intend to use something, and you know this is the case, why would you not come up with guidelines for how you intend to use it before you get it?
Next up was actually the head of the local BLM, and he was having none of it.
He acknowledged that he knew the police chief and the department did have a good history with protests, but he pointed out that it doesn’t matter how great a guy the police chief is, because it’s not about him, it’s about the next person with the job. We don’t know who the next police chief will be, or how will that person will handle the job, or if whatever guidelines we set up now will stay in place when that person takes over the office.
He went on, and he and a few professors from the local university actually had a lot of data on how police acquisition of military hardware tends to make communities less safe.
It was a lively and sensible debate.
I’m still not sure where I stand on it. I’m generally still not in favor of militarized police, but if we could get some hard and fast guidelines and ensure the department can’t change them on a whim, I can see the benefits of the police in my town having this particular vehicle.
At the same time, I’m a white guy, so I exist in a privileged space where if the police do misuse this vehicle, I’m not likely to be the one suffering the immediate consequences.
With that in mind, I think I’m likely to concede the point of the BLM spokesmen and say we probably shouldn’t be getting it.
Not that it mattered.
The decision seemed to be made.
The meeting was largely a public relations move and BLM members in attendance said as much.
They took advantage of the press there and staged a walkout near the meeting’s end.
But this was the reasonable side of things.
There was another side.
The “fun” side of the meeting.
After several reasonable and knowledgeable people spoke, a woman in pink and green stepped up to the podium.
She seemed offended that some of the community members’ concerns were over the cost and how the vehicle was purchased, claiming that the community spends more on other things and nobody complains about that. This rather misses the point, but it was at least an understandable position.
Then she just kept talking.
She ‘explained’ that what this was really about was that the people against it just hated the police. She recounted that at a previous meeting she had overheard someone saying “fuck the police.”
A sentiment which she found to be, and I quote, “So rude.”
She went on, explaining her belief that this public outcry was in reality (and I swear I’m not making this up) a conspiracy to cripple the police. How did she know this? She helpfully explained that all the people against the purchase had criminal records.
I had to cover my mouth and forcibly stop myself from laughing at this woman.
I completely failed to stifle the laugh when the next person to speak was a rail-thin, man who introduced himself as a radical christian pacifist with, “…a very small criminal record.”
But lest you think this crazy was restricted to the “For” side, let me tell you about one of the last people to speak.
A heavyset bald man stepped up to the podium, declaring that he was the police chief’s next door neighbor, self identified as a conservative republican, and he was against the purchase.
Why you ask?
Well at first he made a reasonable point about how the department had failed to properly notify the public.
For a brief moment I, as a very liberal democratic socialist, found myself thinking, “Holy shit. Am I about to agree with a old conservative on something?”
Then he went on.
He explained that the purchase of a militarized vehicle by a liberal city in the middle of a red state was in truth part of a conspiracy to turn to the police into a militia loyal to the town council, created in retaliation to the election of Donald Trump. He called the rule of the mayor and the town council a regime of “Passive Aggressive Despotism.”
This is absolutely going to be the name of my new band.
In his final moments of speaking, he even found a way to blame Obama (because of course he found a way to blame Obama) in that the town council was acting on behalf of the former president’s “Passive Aggressive” policies.
It was a trainwreck.
Which I found less funny, as I couldn’t help but think this man was making the entire “Against” position look worse by association.
This is probably something akin to what the police chief felt when the woman in pink and green said everyone against had criminal records.
But as I said, the decision was made before we even started.
The official decision doesn’t happen until the end of the month, but all sides acknowledge that it’s a foregone conclusion.
But if we all agree that’s it’s a done deal, why are we still arguing?
I think at this point the argument is really about one side who feels betrayed, and one who is angry that people feel betrayed.
That’s not an argument that goes anywhere.
You can’t insist that someone feel good about something.
We’ve been over something like this before I think.
Personally, I think that the police do need proper tools for critical incidents, but I’m very wary of the way the police communicated the purchase, and the casually vague answers as to specific guidelines for its use.
It is very troubling.