PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Protesters around the nation are decrying brutality, saying police around the country have come to resemble the military. Now two bills before city and county lawmakers aim to rein in police power and the gear they're allowed to deploy.
The protesters say the police have become too militaristic and pose a threatening presence in the community, but law enforcement says this equipment is needed for their own protection.
Have police become too militaristic with armored vehicles, riot gear and an LRAD sound weapon to disperse crowds? Councilman Ricky Burgess says this kind of equipment makes police look more like an invading army and he's sponsoring legislation to stop the purchase of it.
"We're the Pittsburgh Police, not the 3rd Infantry," said Councilman Ricky Burgess.
The day after a peaceful protest downtown turned destructive with 71 stores vandalized, Sheriff Bill Mullen surrounded the Allegheny County Courthouse with deputies in full riot gear.
"It's unfortunate that we have to use that equipment, but our lives are at stake," he said.
Over the past two decades, many police departments across the country have been fortified with military surplus. Others like sheriff's offices have geared up with protective equipment, tear gas and flash bangs. Now, County Council has a bill to those as well.
"If they don't want us using this military equipment or any of this riot gear, then maybe we shouldn't have any crime. Maybe people shouldn't be throwing rocks at us or water bottles full of urine or -- you see? -- they had bombs," Mullen said.
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Tim Stevens of the Black Political Empowerment Project countered, saying "I think you have militaristic gear, militaristic equipment. It doesn't send a message of protect and serve. It sends a signal of abuse and arrest."
Mullen says armored vehicles and firepower were needed when police stormed the Tree of life Synagogue to subdue an alleged mass killer in 2018 and in April 2009 when an alleged white supremacist killed three police officers. But Tim Stevens says the over-deployment of these things sends a wrong message.
"The focus should be on 'how do we police our communities in a more positive way?' How do we get more buy-in from the community, so when there's negative things going on, you get more reports?" he said.
The purpose and use of this military equipment will be part of the ongoing debate over the reshaping of police departments. All agree it should only be used only when necessary, but it's hard to determine exactly when that is.
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