Opinion

The Great Debate

Never an excuse for shooting unarmed suspects, former police chief says

A police officer points a spotlight at a more vocal and confrontational group of demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near FergusonI was the police chief in Kansas City, Missouri, when an unarmed African-American teenager was shot by a cop for a non-violent issue. The result was a peaceful and constructive public dialogue — the opposite of what is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.

I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America, having just arrived from New York City, where I had been a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department during a high-crime period. But I had no real honeymoon in Missouri.

Just a few days after I took charge, on a crystal clear day in 1973, a uniformed officer responded to a daylight break-in of a home. The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight, at 115 pounds.

Police officers monitor a group of rowdy demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, MissouriThe Kansas City Star filled its entire front page with an image of Lark, an angelic school photo of the youngster who looked to be a skinny 10-year-old. If you had a heart, you had to be touched.

If Lark had received any punishment, it would likely have been a week in juvenile hall. As a gesture of sympathy to the black community, I attended his funeral in civilian clothes. The officer was reprimanded and transferred.

The militarization of U.S. police forces

This month, more Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) have found their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. These are just the latest acquisitions in a growing practice by Pentagon that’s militarizing America’s municipal police forces.

Police departments in Boise and Nampa, Idaho, each acquired an MRAP, as did the force in High Springs, Florida. The offer of war-ready machinery, at practically no cost, has proven hard to resist for local police departments. Increasingly, they are looking like soldiers equipped for battle.

The growing similarity between our domestic police forces and the U.S. military is a result of the Pentagon’s 1033 Program. This allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies. In addition to the frightening presence of paramilitary weapons in American towns, the program has led to rampant fraud and abuse.

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