- - Friday, August 15, 2014

Your friendly neighborhood policeman is becoming your not-so-friendly neighborhood Army Ranger. The riots in Ferguson, Mo., a small suburb of St. Louis, have demonstrated to a surprised public that the typical cop has weapons that only a few armies in the world can boast.

A review of photographs and videos shows that police in Ferguson confronted rioters decked out in Kevlar vests, night-vision goggles and helmets, and armed with AR-15 and M4 semi-automatic rifles, grenade launchers and fighting knives. The cops looked ready to take Omaha Beach. Most of the heavy weaponry, in fact, came from the Pentagon.

Included in the haul recently delivered to Ferguson and St. Louis County police includes, according to Defense Department documents reviewed by ABC News, “six .45-caliber pistols, 12 rifles, two sight reflexes, one explosive-ordnance disposal robot, one helicopter, seven utility trucks, three trailers, one motorized cart, one pair of elbow pads, one pair of kneepads, one industrial-strength face shield, and two night-vision viewers and computers.”

Thousands of retired military vehicles, weapons and warfare hardware have been transferred from the Defense Department to law enforcement agencies across the country since 1997, mostly in the name of fighting terrorism. Law-enforcement agencies, mostly police departments, have stocked their warehouses with more than $5.1 billion worth of property, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

These weapons were bought and paid for to protect Americans from terrorism, but are sometimes turned on peaceful Americans. In his book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” Radley Balko, an authority on criminal justice, says that police SWAT teams make more than a hundred raids somewhere in America every day, using military-grade weapons and battlefield tactics. Many of the raids are aimed at people who, it turns out, are innocent. The cops occasionally raid the wrong house.

When protests, such as those in Ferguson, break out, these military weapons and tactics are employed so aggressively that it often invites resistance that becomes violent. The weapons are sometimes turned on people in the streets. A cop in a Kevlar vest and armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers, accompanied by a robot, can be tempted to deal harshly with smart-aleck attitudes.

A policeman’s lot is rarely a happy one, and he is entitled to sufficient arms to protect himself as well as to deal with rough and reckless thugs and looters. The thugs he must deal with are never choirboys. But neither a supermarket under siege by looters or a noisy mob in the streets is Omaha Beach, and police departments don’t need the arms of an army.

The degree to which local law enforcement agencies have become militarized, many now bearing a closer resemblance to Army Rangers than to a cop patrolling a small town a decade or two ago, have themselves become a threat to public confidence in authority.

Enabling police officers and sheriff’s deputies to greet rallies and protests with tanks, machine guns, grenade launchers, helicopters and armored cars is not only menacing and unnecessary, but chills free speech. The police so armed can quickly silence protests and dissent by scaring demonstrators away — or by mowing them down. Policing unruly and even violent streets with the army, or a police force made into a reasonable facsimile of an army, has never been the American way. Congress should take a closer look at Pentagon yard sales.