Tuesday, August 19, 2014
The images of suburban Midwestern police officers in riot gear, outfitted with rifles, rubber bullets and gas canisters, have served as a powerful reminder of the military-grade equipment that's been flooding into local police departments.
And while Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has now ordered an actual military intervention in Ferguson, The New York Times last week published a handy interactive showing how local law enforcement agencies have benefited from a Defense Department program that lets them acquire military-style equipment. Allegheny County is no exception.
Of course, militarization of police generally is hardly a new issue: In 2007, City Paper's Charlie Deitch took a dive into the effect this kind of equipment on has on the public's trust of police, especially when deployed in poorer minority neighborhoods.
But we figured it would be worth checking in on the city's use of this particular program, especially since data compiled by the Times shows law-enforcement agencies within Allegheny County received 52 assault rifles, 24 pistols, 20 night-vision goggles, two mine-resistant vehicles and four other armored vehicles.
Pittsburgh Police spokesperson Sonya Toler wrote in an email that the bomb squad "received a robot in the '90s" and "SWAT got an armored vehicle around the same time." (Toler did not immediately clarify exactly what kind of robot or vehicle was acquired, but noted the robot was donated to Pittsburgh Public Schools in the early 2000s.)
Other than that, the police department "has not used the program anytime recently," Toler wrote.
The picture is less clear elsewhere in the county. "We wouldn't have any information on local police departments," says county spokesperson Amie Downs, and she says the county doesn't have a breakdown of its own equipment.
Beth Pittinger, the executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, said she requested an "inventory of any surplus military equipment" from acting police chief Regina McDonald earlier today.
"I don’t think it’s a question about equipment, it’s a question about philosophy," Pittinger says. Some military-style equipment, she notes, can legitimately protect both civilians and police officers.
Still, Pittinger added, "We only need to look back to G-20 to see what the militarization of police really means."