Cambridge Councilor: ‘Military Weapons Should Not Be Used Against Residents’

The candidate for Lt. Governor wants police to wear cameras, and force departments to release exhaustive audits of their arsenals.

Police in Ferguson, Missouri/Image via Associated press

Police in Ferguson, Missouri/Image via Associated press

As militarized vehicles and armored police forces continue to roll through Ferguson, Missouri, in response to protests and riots following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown earlier this month, many have wondered why small-town agencies need such heavy artillery, including Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung.

“We need to start asking the serious questions over the deployment of military-grade weapons and vehicles against our own residents,” said Cheung, a candidate in the race for Lieutenant Governor.

On Wednesday, Cheung called for tighter controls and more transparency for the use of these types of heavy artillery, and proposed a plan that would require the signature of the governor in order for departments to roll out vehicles and guns fit for war when responding to emergencies in Massachusetts. He hopes such actions would help avoid escalating situations that put protesters in danger as they’ve done in Ferguson.

“We need to act now. I think the time is right to make sure that the tactics designed to fight terrorists are never deployed against our own citizens exercising their constitutional rights to assemble and protest and make their voices heard,” he said.

As part of his proposal, Cheung is calling for the legislature and executive branch to work together to make sure that the purchase and deployment of these types of military-grade equipment are both transparent and fully under civilian control.

Cheung would like to see a law pass that would require police agencies across the state to file an exhaustive audit of every military asset owned. He said unfortunately, some departments in the Commonwealth have refused to release that information, and it’s “unacceptable.”

“The people of the Commonwealth have a right to know just how militarized their police forces are, and have become,” he said. “My plan would place control over the militarized police assets and tactics firmly in the hands of the governor. Except in the most dire emergencies, police should only be able to deploy military assets with specific approval of the highest elected official in the state.”

Cheung’s plan is in direct response to the increased police presence that has taken over the streets of Ferguson in the wake of the shooting death of Brown. Nightly, police forces have made their presence known in the small Missouri town in the form of riot gear, Humvee tanks, tear gas canisters, and high-powered weapons.

In a column this week published in the Boston Globe, Juliette Kayyem called the police response to protests “fearsome,” and said similar reforms like those proposed by Cheung are necessary to ensure public safety.

“This kind of stand-off, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets, and perched atop armored transport vehicles with high-powered rifles, is what happens when local police departments are given access to equipment that has no other function than to kill or terrify,” she wrote.

According to a recent article, “SWAT-style tactics in routine policing” are the result of the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, or the “1033 program.”

The program, managed by the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office based in Florida, provides surplus Department of Defense military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies that are supposed to be used to respond to counter-terrorism operations. Any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency that has arrest and apprehension authority can apply to obtain the weaponry, according to the state’s website, which is exactly what alarms Cheung.

“Now that local police departments have military capability, we have to ensure that those capabilities are also under civilian control,” he said, adding that he doesn’t dispute the need for specialized equipment in a department’s inventory, but that it needs to be accounted for and appropriately dispersed. “In this age of global terrorism, there is a need for heavy equipment, but we must stick with our beliefs and principles, and realize the need is rare.”