Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Riot Gear and Grenade Launchers

This afternoon, Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore will be meeting with the County Commissioners, requesting an "emergency procurement" of over $68,000 in riot gear, including helmets, shields, gas masks, and 3 grenade launchers. I sent an email to the commissioners, below.

"Commissioners Baker, Barr, Cline, Myers, and Spong:

I apologize for the lengthy email, but this is important. Please hear me out.

At this afternoon's meeting, Sheriff Mullendore will be requesting concurrence for an emergency procurement of riot gear, including helmets, shields, gas masks, and grenade launchers. I find this worrying, for two main reasons, both of which point toward the typical scare tactics used by the police in their public relations. Furthermore, I urge you not to concur with this purchase.

Firstly, I feel that the county ordinance under which this purchase is being justified is being abused. I see no reason why this purchase has to be made as an “emergency procurement.” There is no emergency, as defined in 1-106.4a. There is no “sudden and unexpected occurrence or condition … that requires an action to avoid or to mitigate serious damage to public health, safety, or welfare.” 

Yes, there has been rioting in Baltimore, as Mullendore points out, but Washington County is nothing like Baltimore. The situation there does not create a situation here that requires the sheriff's department to purchase grenade launchers to protect “public health, safety, or welfare.” 

In his report, Mullendore states, “just the week before there was an incident in the City of Hagerstown that had the circumstances been different, could have caused similar unrest in our community.” But the circumstances weren't different, therefore there was no “unexpected occurrence,” therefore there was no justification for an emergency procurement. He also states, “there was a protest in Martinsburg, WV during the Baltimore incident as well.” A protest, I might add, that was entirely peaceful, entirely legal, entirely constitutionally-protected, and therefore entirely irrelevant to any discussion of the need for riot gear and grenade launchers.

I suggest that at least a part of the reason this purchase is being made under section 1-106.4 is to create the appearance of an emergency. The sheriff's department wants you to feel an urgency, a dread of some unnamed, imminent threat that does not actually exist. They want you to think, “oh no, what happened in Baltimore might happen here!,” despite handing you two examples of why that is unlikely in Washington County. The death of Darrell Brown on April 16th was a much-discussed event in Hagerstown, but there was no rioting. There wasn't even a protest, despite the fact that many in the Black community felt that his death was directly caused by police actions. After that highly compelling example of why this purchase is NOT justified as an emergency procurement, Mullendore continues to undermine his own argument. He brings up the protest in Martinsburg. A belated peaceful protest in a county that shares many of the same cultural values as our own just goes to show that we in this area are extremely unlikely to riot. He brings up these two incidents because he is grasping at straws. He has no real justification for this purchase as an emergency procurement; he is merely trying to make you, the county commissioners, and the public in general more afraid so that we will not question the sheriff's department's need for more and more weapons. It's shameful and irresponsible.

Secondly, this push towards riot gear and grenade launchers indicates that the national trend toward militarization of the police may have come to Washington County. While riot gear and grenade launchers may, on very rare occasions, be justified, these sorts of tools are often abused by the police once they have them. Allow me to quote from this article (emphasis added):

A report released this summer by the American Civil Liberties Union found that police departments nationwide are increasingly using military tactics and weapons for such routine matters as serving search warrants, sometimes with deadly and tragic results. Among incidents cited in the report:

■ A 19-month-old Wisconsin boy critically wounded in the face and chest in May when a flash-bang grenade, long ago adopted from the military by SWAT teams, landed in his crib at a relative's home in Georgia. Police were executing a no-knock warrant to search for a relative over a $50 drug sale.

■ The 2010 death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, of Detroit, who was struck by a bullet from an officer's gun as she slept on a couch during a Detroit police raid. Police in SWAT gear used a flash-bang grenade in that raid, too. They were looking for a murder suspect, who was found in the upper level of the duplex and surrendered without incident.

■ A pregnant mother, 26, shot with her 14-month-old son in her arms in 2008 when a SWAT team broke down the front door of her rented home in Lima, Ohio, and opened fire. They were looking for her boyfriend on suspicion of drug dealing.

"We found through our investigation the use of paramilitary weapons and tactics causes serious problems for undermining public confidence," said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU and the author of the report, which looked at 800 SWAT raids by law enforcement in 20 states and the agencies' acquisition of military equipment.

"Overly militarized police view people in the community as the enemy," Dansky said.

The grenade launchers in particular worry me. These weapons can be used with relatively non-harmful ammunition, like bean bags, tear gas, pepper balls, etc. But they, obviously, can also be loaded with grenades. I like to think that it is unlikely that the sheriff's department would use the weapons in this way, but I could see that happening. What is much more likely than grenades is the use of “flash-bangs,” which create a blinding, deafening explosion meant to incapacitate suspects for a few seconds. However, flash-bangs are dangerous. They can start fires and cause severe damage to a person if hit. The first bullet point in the above quote proves that. Also, police often get disoriented themselves when using a flash-bang. There have been many cases where police shoot a flash-bang grenade into a building, then confuse the sound of the grenade going off for a gun shot and open fire. Innocent people have been killed because of this. We do not want that sort of tragedy to happen in Washington County.

If we start militarizing our police here, we may very well see some rioting. Our culture will change. The public's attitude toward police will reflect their image. The “warrior cop” is a soldier fighting against the people he has sworn to protect. The attitude on the part of the sheriff's department is already there: we need these things because it's scary out there. It's “us vs. them,” where “they” are American citizens. That is a frightening attitude. I understand that the incidence of “active shooter” situations has risen since 2000, as Mullendore pointed out to the Herald Mail, and may point out at the meeting. I also understand that those incidents have dropped since 2010 and remain extremely rare, albeit highly publicized. And the majority of those situations ended before police even got to the scene. But violent crime as a whole is down and has been continuing a downward trend since the mid-90's. We have more reason today to be afraid of the police than we do of the criminals.

It's a slippery slope. Give in to this, and you will set a precedent for giving in to every demand that includes scare-mongering tactics.  I ask you to at least question his assertions, show some backbone. Give him a hard time for making this purchase under the emergency procurement section. And if you really want to prove yourselves men of honor, deny this request. Do not concur this this “emergency” procurement.

Thank you for your consideration,
Angela Kershner"

For more information:
Meeting Agenda
Herald Mail article: Washington County Sheriff's Office purchases $68K in riot gear

UPDATE: Of course, they fucking approved it without even questioning Mullendore. It's not surprising. I shouldn't be surprised. I'm fucking pissed, though. Mullendore justified the use of 1-106.4 by stating "riot gear takes a long time to get," which is in no way a legal justification for emergency procurement. Motherfucking pieces of shit. Follow-up email sent:


Honestly, you all just sat there as Mullendore justified his use of 1-106.4 "emergency procurement" by stating that riot gear "takes a long time to get." That is not an emergency! That is not a justification for emergency procurement according to the county law. And not a single one of you questioned him on that. Not a single one. It's as though none of you care at all about the law. I'm ashamed, I'm infuriated, and I am not at all surprised.
Angela Kershner"

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