When the American Civil Liberties Union featured New Haven Chief of Police Dean Esserman in a forum on police militarization last night, attendees expected to bear witness to a heated debate, but instead watched a coolheaded discussion unfold.
Roughly 30 Yale students, New Haven community members and residents of neighboring towns gathered in Harkness Hall for the forum organized by the ACLU’s Connecticut chapter and the ACLU Yale undergraduate chapter. During the discussion, New Haven Independent Editor Paul Bass, the moderator, presented topics to Esserman and ACLU staff attorney David McGuire, who shared their respective opinions on the issues.
Esserman surprised audience members with his attitudes toward police militarization and supplying local law enforcement officers with surplus military equipment.
“I am a little worried that I’m going to disappoint people tonight because I’m going to agree so much with the ACLU,” Esserman said. “It’s not always about the [military] equipment, though sometimes it is.”
The discussion began with a focus on police use of military equipment. McGuire said that, although national crime rates are decreasing, the number of annual SWAT raids and the amount of military equipment given to the police continue to increase. He added that the militarization of police forces undermines community policing, a system in which one officer patrols in a particular area of a neighborhood for an extended period of time to build relationships with community members.
McGuire also steered the discussion to focus on the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
He said that although many people have only started to devote attention to police militarization issues after Ferguson, the ACLU has spearheaded initiatives to address this issue for the past several years. McGuire specifically pointed to the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which allows city and state law enforcement to receive surplus military equipment for free.
According to a report by the Hearst Connecticut Media Group in September, the Yale Police Department received $354,984.47 worth of military equipment through the program.
“Many of the items we acquired will be helpful for responding to mass casualty or other emergency management uses,” Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins told the News in September. “My decision to order equipment is made to support or sustain existing programs or … to support emergency response.”
Mcguire said that local law enforcement should re-evaluate the presence of such equipment in communities, which he said has the potential to do more harm than good.
Esserman said that, while police militarization has the potential to hurt community members rather than help them, problems with militarization mostly lie with officers’ training and mentality.
“It’s about how, when and where you use [the equipment],” Esserman said. “Ferguson was an example of how, when and where not to use it.”
After the two speakers delivered opening statements, the discussion focus shifted to the use of military equipment in the NHPD. Possession of some military equipment and training is necessary, Esserman said, adding that police have had to adapt as crime in America has changed.
Esserman specifically referenced the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo. as an episode in which the police officials needed heavier equipment and military training. He said that, in that situation and in mass shootings in general, officers need to be prepared for more prolonged conflict.
Bass also directed the panelists to address taser use by police forces.
McGuire said that, like the use of military equipment, arming officers with tasers also breaks down trust between officers and community members and puts residents at risk of police misconduct. He added that the problems related to arming officers with tasers are not specific to New Haven — the ACLU is focusing on establishing statewide regulations.
“Perception is everything, especially in the game of policing,” McGuire said.
Forum attendees echoed McGuire’s statement. New Haven resident Julia Berger said that residents in her town feel intimidated when they see officers carrying tasers and guns. She added that she was glad to see Esserman and McGuire agree on the need to limit police use of major weaponry.
Co-chair of the ACLU’s Yale chapter Bianca Rey ’15 said that the forum was part of the ACLU’s movement to raise awareness about policing issues. She said that, in the light of Ferguson, police militarization is an especially pertinent discussion. She added that just as she did not expect Esserman and McGuire to agree on so many issues, undergraduates are generally not aware of how much the NHPD and ACLU have in common.
The Connecticut chapter of the ACLU is one 53 affiliates that operate nationwide on issues like criminal justice, police accountability and voting rights.