Virginia Tech, Radford experts discuss police using surplus military equipment

Published: Aug. 29, 2017 at 11:21 PM EDT
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Do the people hired to serve and protect our hometowns need military grade equipment to effectively do their jobs?

That's the question some are asking, following Monday's announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that surplus military gear will be given to police officers.

According to two university experts, the equipment being discussed is armored vehicles, fifty caliber weapons, and grenade launchers. But some say that's excessive for the people patrolling our local streets.

Wornie Reed is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, as well as the Director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at the university.

He said, "They don't need them! And what is happening is the blurring of the line between the military and the police. One of the traditions of the United States is that we don't have military people policing citizens."

Reed also said that type of equipment could limit citizen's First Amendment rights to speak out or demonstrate.

He explained, "These weapons will cause people to shy away from expressing their First Amendment rights."

Another professor, Tod Burke a Criminal Justice Professor at Radford University, who's a former Maryland police officer, said he can see some need as criminals are getting bigger and better weapons.

But not if we're talking about grenade launchers.

"If you're talking about vests, and you're talking about protective gear, sure I could see that being used, and it has been used quite often," he said.

But having this gear would come with a lot of responsibility.

Burke explained, "If you're going to have the military equipment, you better know how to use it, you better know where to store it, and you better have some policies on it's effectiveness."

Reed said on Tuesday the policy to have this equipment in the police force, before President Obama limited it in 2015, was started by the Nixon Administration following the 1960's riots.

It was meant to deter violence, even though Reed said violence has been going down in the last 30 years.

So he was asked could this type of equipment have been useful in the Charlottesville mass violence this month?

He strongly said, "It could not have made the situation better, it could only have made it worse. We need to think clearly about these things and not just say we throw all of the weapons at these people who may riot or they may do this [or that]."

Burke echoed that sentiment that police should also be training in using alternative methods of conflict resolution, even if they have this equipment.

Reed said he was always a voice against police using military equipment, and whether people support or are against the use of the equipment, they should talk to their neighbors to start a buzz, so the feelings can reach elected officials.