The next mayor of the City of Boston, who will be elected to office today, has the opportunity to stem the rising tide of an increasingly militarized police force. He should seize it.
The Boston Globe today reports that city police will soon have access to more semiautomatic weapons, similar in appearance and function to the AR-15 or M4. An additional 99 officers will be trained to deploy the military-grade weapons, according to the department.
Departing Commissioner Ed Davis said that he made the decision to give his officers more firepower before the April 15 marathon attacks, but that “[a]n incident like that reinforces the need for equipment that’s necessary to defend the community."
According to the Globe, police departments throughout Massachusetts hold nearly 1,000 semiautomatic rifles today. Do we really need more? Do the police need semiautomatic weapons at all, even in light of the Boston marathon attacks and the chase for the suspects, which ended in a gunfight in a residential neighborhood in Watertown? Not all police think so.
The newspaper quotes Jack Kervin, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation: "It’s almost like we’re moving away from being community policing officers to being Navy SEALs." Photographs from the scene in Watertown in April 2013 show that this transformation has already happened. But does the militarization of the police hurt or help us?
Some people reflexively assume that more firepower for police will equal better public safety outcomes, given that criminals can illegally obtain high powered semiautomatic weapons or machine guns. But is that true? And is the reference to the Watertown shootout a good justification for the further militarization of the police in Massachusetts? A closer look at what happened that day suggests it is not.
After the dust had cleared in the neighborhood where police engaged in a firefight with the Tsarnaev brothers, residents started voicing their concerns about the overwhelming police response. Mike Doucette, whose home was shot up during the gun battle, told WGBH news:
"The whole shoot out was pretty wild," he said. "Bullets were flying everywhere. Every one of these houses was hit by something. I mean, they could have had more control over what they were shooting at, maybe."
Among the many unanswered questions: Why were so many bullets fired into homes — and should this have been avoided? At least a dozen homes were hit by bullets in Watertown that night, including that of Andy Fehlner and his wife, Michelle Smith, who woke up to the sound of explosions and gunfire.
"Something was dropping in the house and it was something I never heard before," Fehlner said. "And then we picked these items up that were flying in our house and we realized pretty quickly that they’re bullets. And all of them were coming from that side of the house, so we ran and grabbed the kids because the bullets were coming very close to their bed."
Fehlner said one bullet came within 12 inches of his toddler’s bed.
Many of the bullets that struck homes were fired by police — most from departments outside Watertown, according to confidential law enforcement sources. The intended target: the stolen SUV driven by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he tried to escape.
Another Watertown resident said that even as the younger Tsarnaev hid in a boat, without a weapon, police fired a barrage of bullets — seven of which ended up lodged in the home. WBUR reports that a "neighbor’s house was riddled with 27."
Would yet more powerful guns have made this shootout any less destructive to the neighborhood? If the cops who first responded to the scene had possessed semiautomatic rifles, would there instead have been greater damage to residents’ homes and persons? After all, one of the reasons the BPD wants more powerful guns in its arsenal is to penetrate body armor or to injure or kill people "protected by material that cannot be penetrated with a service pistol."
Superintendent in Chief of the BPD Daniel Linskey told the Globe that BPD officers who are interested in receiving training to use semiautomatic rifles have made themselves known, and that there is “a lot of interest” in the program. A self-selected group of police officers eager to deploy high powered weaponry sounds like a recipe for disaster.
The department wants to purchase "33 semiautomatic rifles to supplement the more than 60 SWAT team officers who use M4 rifles," according to Linksey. These rifles will cost about $2,500 each, plus $500 for ammunition, according to the Globe. That’s nearly $100k of taxpayer money.
Instead of further militarizing our police forces, the next mayor of Boston should veto the funding request for these semiautomatic rifles, and reinvest in community policing strategies and tactics that build trust between the police and the people they serve.