Gunning Up Virginia’s Cops

By Peter Galuszka

 In 2014, the Sheriff’s Department of York County and Poquoson got their very own tank-like vehicle, called a “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP).”

Fully armored and tan in color with steep sides, it looks like something out television footage of the war in Iraq where U.S. troops needed to get through mine-infested streets and terrain safely.

But why do such generally sleepy communities such as these need a high-powered armored car? Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Digs told The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press that it isn’t meant to “intimidate people” but can be useful during adverse weather when trees are down. Really? Wouldn’t a pickup truck work?

The newspaper story is important since it combs through what Virginia law enforcement got after the “1033”Defense Department program started to sell surplus military gear to local law enforcement in 1997.

It notes that military surplus sales in Virginia went from $216,000 in 1999 to $853,824 in 2019, according to Defense Logistics Agency statistics. The latter number included the cost of another MRAP so Virginia Beach could get its very own armored truck. Over time, the City of Portsmouth got 87 M-16 assault rifles. Other goodies include night vision glasses.

This all begs a question. After all the turmoil nationally in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed and handcuffed African American by a white Minneapolis Police Department policeman, there are strong calls to defund or reorganize police departments. What should be done?

Back in the mid-1970s, when I was covering police departments in Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and sometimes Norfolk for The Virginian-Pilot, the emphasis was on community policing.

Police were encouraged to get to know their communities, build trust with residents who would let them know what was going on and protect lives and property.

Of course there were major problems. In 1973, a State Police undercover probe resulted in the convictions of a number of Portsmouth narcotics and vice detectives for accepting sexual favors from prostitutes in exchange for intelligence on planned police raids. It got so bad that no other police department in Tidewater wanted to share information with Portsmouth.

Also, there were accusations of brutality and disproportionate petty harassment of African-Americans for such crimes as possessing marijuana. On July 1 of this year, the “crime” is being decriminalized and will bring a small fine, not prison time.

The 1033 program has the unfortunate effect of putting barriers between a community and its police. You can’t build trust from inside of an armored truck. You can’t achieve much by parading around in military gear with flak jackets and assault rifles as if you are seizing Baghdad.

It isn‘t clear how the national movement to “defund” the police will impact Virginia. The Minneapolis City Council has voted to perhaps dissolved its police and come up with something new.

That’s too extreme but a reassessment is healthy. It is clear that police have been tasked with too much. For example, if a non-violent person suffering from mental illness is having a psychotic episode, the police will be called. They may handcuff the sick individual and take him or her to a psychiatric ward.

Why can’t other public servants handle it?