Debate Over Militarization Of Local Police Stirs In The Wake Of Ferguson Unrest

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Violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri are fueling a debate over whether the military should hand down equipment - like armored vehicles - to local law enforcement.

In September 2009, there was chaos on 4th Street after a man armed with an AK-47 shot two Columbus officers and opened fire on cruisers.  Retired SWAT officer Jim Scanlon is convinced the armored vehicle saved officers' lives that day, but he says he understands public perception.

"When you see a bunch of officers walking down the street with an armored vehicle, it looks like, ‘what are you trying to play, Army?’” Scanlon says.

In April 2009, another man armed with an AK-47 attempted to kill a driver and passenger in a police armored vehicle.  The windshield stopped the bullets, but three other officers were killed.

In the aftermath of police response to the massive protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the White House says it is reviewing programs that allow local police departments to use military gear from the Pentagon. 

Scanlon, who now teaches tactical training to law enforcement officers across the country, argues police use military equipment only as a defense.   “A tank is used in the military.  It's an offensive tool.  It lobs mortars and large shells.  When we used armored vehicles, it's strictly to stop bullets.”

Scanlon adds there are powerful weapons on the street can penetrate any bullet proof vest and says while ballistic helmets may make officers look like soldiers, they do save lives.  For example, in 1995, a Columbus SWAT officer was shot in the head, but his helmet stopped the bullet.

Ohio State University came under criticism last year when it acquired an M-RAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) along with agencies in five central Ohio counties including Delaware, Fairfield, Licking, and Pickaway. 

However, Scanlon argues in an age when law enforcement is tasked with hostage barricades, active shooters, and homeland security, the militarization of law enforcement is as necessary as it is unpopular.