Many months ago I had the opportunity to catch breakfast with Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, which proved enlightening in terms of what modern day law enforcement officials were facing when it comes to providing the public with protection that we have all come to expect.
The occasion followed a column of mine at the time which raised questions about the use by Bouchard's office of the Stingray, a suitcase-size surveillance device that mimics a cell tower and allows police to grab phone data from a targeted phone. My concern was that not much is known about Stingray and similar devices in use by local police departments, thanks to manufacturer/government non-disclosure agreements that keep both the cost and device specifics shrouded in secrecy. From what little anyone can gather, some of these devices automatically sweep up phone data from all cell phones within one mile or a greater area in some cases.
I am not sure I walked away from the breakfast with any less concern about possible loss of privacy rights on the part of the public. I approach any such infringement on the part of the government by erring on the side of the public's right to privacy.
I did leave the breakfast with a more thorough understanding of the new challenges facing law enforcement professionals in today's society against the backdrop of the threat of domestic and international terrorism that is high on the public radar screen.
Keep in mind that our get-together was coming off the heels of the 2014 shooting of African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, so the topic on everyone's mind was the added fear about the over-militarization of local police departments, thanks in large part to the federal program started during the George W. Bush administration, which included giving away military equipment no longer needed for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Michigan public safety departments received, since 2006, about $40 million of surplus equipment, including tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers – you name it.
Bouchard made a strong case for some of the equipment obtained by his department and neighboring county sheriffs who any day could be called on to deal with the threat of terrorism that we all know exists today. His most vivid example was the success his department had in employing an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle in a West Bloomfield gunman incident in West Bloomfield during which his department was able to safely evacuate hostages, if memory serves me correctly.
I also felt comfortable knowing that on large county events, like the Woodward Dream Cruise, for example, unbeknown to attendees, similar equipment is strategically located – but well out of sight – for quick response along the cruise route, should an immediate response be needed to a threatening situation.
There is a legitimate concern about the blurring of the fine line on what the public has long considered sacrosanct – a clear distinction between an organized military force and local police departments, but Bouchard has shown he is sensitive to these same concerns.
That is why it is with some disappointment that we are now watching the Obama administration overreacting to the national debate about over-militarization of local police departments with an executive order in the past year that requires some of the unused war items to be returned to the federal government. The order requires police departments in this state and nationwide to return tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, grenade launchers, bayonets and similar items to be given up by local departments. It has always seemed over-the-top, if not dangerous, that local police departments would need items like grenade launchers and weaponized aircraft, but MRAP vehicles are another matter.
So I was at least heartened by a letter protesting the new policy to the current administration that was authored by Congressman David Trott (Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills), who was joined by Mike Bishop (Rochester, Rochester Hills) and four other GOP congress members from the Michigan delegation, attempting to reverse the mandatory equipment return policy.
Ignore the fact that as taxpayers we have already paid for this equipment no longer in use, or that Oakland can afford to purchase other similar vehicles. Be it Bouchard's department or other county/regional law enforcement agencies, more is being expected in terms of homeland security and response, and as residents we want to know that someone can provide it quickly when the situation arises. These departments are the first responders, our first line of defense/offense if a crisis develops like the recent massacre in San Bernardino, California, or Paris.
Without question there have been some abuses by a few departments across the country when it comes to employing the used military equipment, but unless a compromise can be struck, we will all be paying the price for the lack of readiness thanks to the loss of some of this equipment.