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Jay Evensen: Should police departments equip themselves like an invading army?

Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank speaks to the media about his resignation near the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank speaks to the media about his resignation near the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY —

Six years have passed since Chris Burbank, who then was police chief in Salt Lake City, surprised much of the nation by peacefully disbursing a group of “Occupy Salt Lake” protesters who had set up camp in Pioneer Park.

The surprise was that, at a time when police departments were starting to look more like invading armies than friendly neighborhood cops, Burbank and his officers showed up in regular police uniforms.

The surprise was that Burbank and a couple of officers led the way, calmly explaining to the group what was about to happen and why.

The confrontation was peaceful. Only 19 people were arrested. The rest were given options. A homeless advocate provided transportation to join a similar protest in Ogden or to visit a homeless shelter. There was no tear gas, no clubs wielded by faceless, helmeted law enforcers with shields. A few people grumbled, but the Occupy movement, which was fizzling nationwide anyway, moved on.

This caught the attention of The Washington Post, which quoted Burbank as saying riot gear invites confrontation.

It was a minority viewpoint then, and it apparently remains so today.

President Donald Trump announced this week that he is reviving a program allowing the military once again to provide surplus equipment to state and local policing agencies, reversing an Obama-era decision to greatly curtail it.

A lot has happened over the past six years, much of it in Ferguson, Missouri. Something about bringing in large and imposing military vehicles and officers dressed in heavily armored spacesuits seemed inconsistent with the idea of reaching out to an underprivileged, impoverished and neglected population.

The media began detailing what local police departments were getting from the military. In Utah, little Box Elder County got 54 assault rifles, an armored truck and — a useful tool for any county of 52,000 people — a grenade launcher.

But now the Justice Department is armed with research to back up the program. A paper published in the American Economic Journal, authored by three researchers at the University of Tennessee, concludes that the military equipment has had “generally positive effects.”

In particular, the paper said it resulted in “reduced citizen complaints, reduced assaults on officers, increased drug crime arrests, and no increases in offender deaths.”

To put a fine point on it, they found that every 1 percent increase in “tactical items” reduced firearm attacks on officers by 0.1 percent, and the probability of such an attack fell by 0.03 percent.

So what should we make of all this? Are we better off building local armies to protect neighborhoods? Was Burbank putting his people at unnecessary risk six years ago?

Should today’s local police be using more brute force, and perhaps a grenade launcher or two borrowed from Box Elder County, to scour the area around the homeless shelter on Rio Grande Street?

Well, hang on a minute, commander. As with many conflicts in life, the truth here probably lies somewhere in the middle.

One study, or even two (another paper by other researchers is expected soon), cannot be considered conclusive.

Despite what their data suggests, the University of Tennessee authors cautioned that “these results should not be used to diminish concerns about police-community relations, the role of police in our society, violence against civilians by police, or vice versa.”

In other words, we should keep our eyes on a bigger picture.

This much can probably be said with a strong degree of common sense: When white supremacists and the alt-left are converging in your downtown, you probably need all the military equipment you can get. The same is true when terrorists attack or your city decides to host a meeting of the G-7.

But no armored vehicle can match the power of a police agency that is involved with the community, daily gaining the trust of the people it serves.

When this topic came up during a meeting with the Deseret News editorial board a couple of years ago, Burbank made the point that police need to do more than just show up and deal with problems.

Regardless of what may be said about the White House’s announcement, that is a point local chiefs should not forget.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@deseretnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.