After Shootings Of Officers, Activists And Communities Fear Creeping Militarization
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, police officers have asked for more weapons and for more protective gear. In Oklahoma City, police are now allowed to bring their own private semi-automatic rifles on duty. But as Kate Carlton Greer from member station KGOU reports, that change has sparked concern about the over-militarization of police.
KATE CARLTON GREER, BYLINE: It's Police Sergeant Rob Gallavan's day off. There's a large black bag sitting on his kitchen table. He unzips it and casually removes a black AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAG UNZIPPING)
CARLTON GREER: The department gives one to roughly half of the city's police officers. Under the new policy, those who don't have a department-issued rifle can now choose to bring their own to work if it makes them feel more prepared. Gallavan says he wouldn't want to be outgunned.
ROB GALLAVAN: Unfortunately, I don't think Dallas and Baton Rouge will be anomalies. I just don't. And then mass shootings as a whole are no longer rare.
CARLTON GREER: The city's police union has long wanted this policy and asked again after the Dallas shooting. Police Chief Bill Citty initially nixed the planned, questioning whether rifles would actually make officers safer. Then came the second attack on police.
BILL CITTY: I knew after Baton Rouge, there was no way I could hold that. I mean, I'm a realist. And we may never have that again in years. But the bottom line is that, you know, I have a responsibility to also make the officers feel better.
CARLTON GREER: But if officers feel safer with the added weapons, some community members don't.
Grace Franklin is a co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice, a group that advocates for minority women. She understands police want protection, but she argues the rifle expansion is a step too far.
GRACE FRANKLIN: It almost feels as if you're trying to protect yourself from us when we're the community you're supposed to be protecting and serving.
CARLTON GREER: The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says more guns send a message that the police don't trust the community. Ryan Kiesel is with the ACLU of Oklahoma.
RYAN KIESEL: The breakdown in trust, I think, represents a greater threat to public safety, both for law enforcement officers and for the communities that they serve right here in Oklahoma City, than any sort of, you know, marginal benefit that we would have by putting these rifles in patrol cars.
CARLTON GREER: Elsewhere in the country, there's concern about what impact increasing armament, whether it's rifles or ballistic helmets, will have on the police-community relationship and how additional weapons might be used.
Seth Stoughton teaches criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.
SETH STOUGHTON: It's not that police start militarized. It's that they acquire the equipment, and then, because they have this equipment in training, they start using it and not always using it in appropriate ways.
CARLTON GREER: In Oklahoma City, personal rifles are subject to the same protocol and training as department-issued guns. And they'll be kept in patrol car trunks. But Stoughton says perception matters.
STOUGHTON: It might still give the community the impression that officers do not trust community members, and that can be pretty damaging for police-community relationships.
CARLTON GREER: Another major city police department, Nashville, started allowing officers to use personal rifles after the shooting in Newtown, Conn. And Nashville police say, community relations haven't suffered.
Oklahoma City Sergeant Rob Gallavan and says the concern here is overblown.
GALLAVAN: If we have people who are able to qualify on the rifle and are willing to buy their own rifle, why wouldn't you give that officer the opportunity to go through excellent training and carry that weapon on the street?
CARLTON GREER: Gallavan says unless shooting attacks decrease, he doesn't see cops scaling back their desire for equipment any time soon.
For NPR News, I'm Kate Carlton Greer in Norman, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.