By Sheriff Bill Elfo
Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald September 8, 2014
Recent events have raised questions about federal government programs that provide surplus military equipment to law enforcement. Fundamental to ordered liberty in the United States is the principle that local law enforcement is not a force of military occupation, but rather are part of the community and accountable to locally elected officials and the citizenry. Law enforcement officers do not function as soldiers, but rather as guardians of the community. Our citizens rightfully expect that officers be respectful of constitutional rights but remain highly trained, well-equipped and prepared to responsibly and effectively protect them.
I cannot speak to the type of surplus military equipment acquired in other states or how it is deployed. I can specifically address the nature of equipment that has been acquired by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the circumstances and manner in which it is used.
The sheriff’s office received surplus anti-ballistic type body armor and vehicles. This equipment is designed to maximize the level of protection afforded officers, victims and innocent bystanders from those seeking to use weapons against them. The vehicles are “armored,” but are not “armed.” This means that they provide a high-level of ballistic protection from weapons but are not “weaponized” or in any way used as weapons.
Law enforcement is increasingly confronted with armed, dangerous and often mentally ill and irrational persons and must plan for responses to terrorist acts. Anti-ballistic equipment and vehicles maximize the safety of officers as they respond to these high-risk situations. The vehicles and equipment also provide a platform from which officers can more safely evacuate citizens from zones of danger.
Dramatic news footage of school shootings, the Jewish Community Center shooting in Seattle and other incidents involving active shooters highlight risks to innocent bystanders and victims who suddenly find themselves in the midst of a violent attack. It makes no sense to evacuate citizens by running them unprotected through a potential field of fire when safe and effective alternatives are available. These specialty vehicles are also designed to traverse floods, mud and other challenging terrains and can facilitate search and rescue missions.
Armored vehicles are not used for routine patrol. The sheriff’s office maintains highly refined risk-assessment and deployment protocols for the deployment of this special equipment. The vehicles are operated by trained special response team deputies and are used when reasonably necessary to safely transport officers or protect and evacuate citizens.
Anti-ballistic equipment is just one protection tool available to officers. Responding to high-risk crisis situations involving weapons is a very complex business. Seconds and skill count and can literally mean the difference between life and death. Law enforcement must have a wide-array of options for quickly defusing such threats.
All first-responding deputies are trained to peaceably defuse situations whenever possible. However, they are also trained and prepared to immediately and appropriately respond to instances posing an imminent threat to life. Deputies are provided a range of less-lethal training and equipment as options.
While some situations will dictate the use of deadly force, less-lethal equipment and training has in many instances minimized the degree of force needed to safely resolve confrontations, reduced injuries to officers and suspects and undoubtedly saved lives.
Deputies are supported by a crisis negotiation team with advanced skills in defusing situations involving dangerously mentally ill and irrational persons. The team is dispatched to all situations where their expertise can help bring peaceable resolutions to volatile situations. The team’s training is in part supported and coordinated by the behavioral health function of the health department. The team has proven highly effective in successfully negotiating the surrender of armed and dangerous suspects and saved lives.
As local budget constraints have limited the acquisition of anti-ballistic equipment, obtaining equipment through federal surplus programs and modifying it for civilian use helps meet operational needs and makes fiscal sense.
Nationwide, some are expressing concerns about the militarization of the police. As vice chair of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, an agency responsible for training and certifying all local law enforcement officers in Washington, I can report that the opposite is occurring. Officers are not trained as soldiers preparing for war. Rather, the focus is on building a culture that reflects officers are guardians of the communities they serve and the Constitution. While officers remain highly trained in the tactics needed to protect themselves and others, additional emphasis is placed on de-escalating conflict as well as knowledge of the history and rule of law from which their authority is derived. This culture is reflected in Whatcom County as law enforcement agencies work together to protect the community while retaining the trust, confidence and respect of the citizens we serve.
Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/09/08/3840881/military-surplus-equipment-helps.html#storylink=cpy