Staff Columnist

What did Iowans think all this riot gear was for?

Police in Iowa and elsewhere have acquired military-style equipment in recent years. Now they're using it against protesters.

Police clash with protesters in downtown Des Moines Saturday, May 30, 2020. The protests were sparked in the country by
Police clash with protesters in downtown Des Moines Saturday, May 30, 2020. The protests were sparked in the country by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

Many Iowans have been disturbed to see their local police officers suit up in riot gear to monitor and suppress recent protests — with rifles, armored vehicles and chemical munitions.

Dozens of U.S. cities have seen large gatherings in opposition to police violence, set off by the killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis last week. Some communities witnessed the open use of special police equipment and tactics for the first time. Thousands of Iowans, including several journalists, have been exposed to chemicals designed to irritate people’s eyes and respiratory systems.

Coralville crowd turns violent early Monday

It is uncomfortable to see police wielding long guns and face shields clashing with fellow Iowans, but it shouldn’t surprise us. What else did you think all this military-style equipment was for?

Local police departments in Iowa and elsewhere have increased their use of more aggressive strategies and gear over the past couple decades. It has several names in the law enforcement industry — SWAT, special response, tactical — but critics aptly call it the militarization of American police.

Acquiring military-style equipment in Iowa does not come without controversy. It usually goes like this: An agency makes plans to purchase an armored vehicle; concerned citizens complain; police say it will only be used for real scary stuff, like active shooters and hostage situations; concerned citizens are either appeased or frustrated, and we stop pressing the issue.

It turns out police don’t just use their new toys for the really bad stuff. Special response teams are commonly deployed to carry out drug enforcement operations, even when evidence of a violent confrontation is tenuous. And, as we are seeing now, leaders won’t hesitate to set those teams in opposition to crowds of mostly peaceful protesters.

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Nobody fully understands how or when special response teams are used because deployments are not centrally tracked or uniformly reported. In some cases, their use isn’t reported to the public at all. The federal government alone has more than 200 tactical teams, though a 2015 Congressional Research Service report noted the number is likely higher.

The details of recent run-ins between citizens and cops are messy, with official accounts sometimes conflicting with reports from journalists and social media. It’s not clear who is most responsible for starting violence — the protesters, the police or some other provocateurs — but many observers worry the mere presence of tactical forces needlessly escalates the tension.

I’m not sure if it’s helpful to blame individual officers. Their actions are the product of police recruitment, training and the tools they’re given. This is a systematic problem, not an individual one.

‘Tread on thee, not on me’

In a response to ongoing protests and police violence, leaders of the human rights group Amnesty International said, “Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mind-set that confrontation and conflict are inevitable.”

An old saying rings painfully true here — when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We the people — with our votes, our actions and our inaction — assembled the toolbox. Now we are seeing it put to use.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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