Blame the monkeys.
Millions of years ago, when humans’ distant ancestors lived in African trees, they evolved a sense of fear. When an animal — lizard, bird, mammal, even you — sees, hears or feels a potential danger, its brain pumps adrenaline and other hormones into its bloodstream, making that animal ready to run — or fight.
Our distant African ancestors learned to anticipate potential dangers — that a lion was in a particular bush a week ago and might be there again today.
Human beings are good at assessing and taking actions to prevent catastrophic events. We’re awful at preventing catastrophes we can’t physically see.
It’s why the United States has spent more than a trillion dollars on wars after the Sept. 11 attacks but does far less to prevent obesity, heart disease, cancer — even car accidents, which each year kill more people than died on Sept. 11.
This month, we’ve watched the news and learned, via pictures, video and text from Ferguson, Missouri, that there’s a new problem: Police militarization. For years, we’ve armed and trained our police departments to respond to events like Sept. 11 or wild gunfights like the North Hollywood Shootout. We didn’t stop to think about the risk.
This week, the Capital City Weekly published a story revealing that the same federal program that armed police in Ferguson has sent military surplus automatic weapons, body armor and armored vehicles to police departments across Alaska. Juneau has received 14 automatic rifles through the program, and Anchorage has received 123.
Violent crime is down nationwide and here in Alaska, but departments have sought more weapons and armor all the same.
Their reasoning is simple: Automatic weapons remain available to civilians (albeit expensive and rare), so departments shouldn’t risk being outgunned. Police also have to be ready for a terrorist attack, they say.
There’s a problem with that reasoning: The risk of a terrorist attack is no greater today than it was before Sept. 11. We’re simply more aware of it.
Think of it in terms of weather. You’re more likely to buy storm windows after a storm shatters your kitchen sconce, but that doesn’t mean the chance of a storm has gone up. Global warming is making for higher global temperatures, but that doesn’t prevent cold days from happening now and again. Police departments say they want to be ready for those “cold days.”
If cold days are fewer and farther between, however, we wonder if the expense is worth it. A person living in Juneau prepares differently for winter than a person living in Fairbanks. Buying extra-thick mittens would be prudent in Fairbanks, but they’re only useful for perhaps a week in Juneau. Police departments should think the same way.
Preparedness is good, but there is an opportunity cost to every purchase. The federal government surplus program supplies free weapons and equipment, but it does not pay for the maintenance of that equipment, nor does it pay for training to use that equipment.
Were the Juneau Police Department to acquire an armored car, as was discussed in Wednesday’s story, the department would be liable for maintenance and training that vehicle’s operators. That money would be better spent on the department’s officers — adding new policemen, adding additional patrol training or simply raising salaries to encourage interest in the department’s open positions. Juneau police chief Bryce Johnson revealed on Tuesday’s “Juneau Afternoon” that the department has 10 open positions that it has been unable to fill, and it makes sense to spend money to fill those positions rather than on a vehicle that will sit in a garage.
As long as Alaskans own large quantities of firearms, it will be necessary to have police with military-grade weapons. Fortunately, history has shown us that few incidents require a heavily armed police response. Rather than trying to prepare for the worst possible scenario, we should be preparing for the scenario we will encounter every day. By using human logic, we can keep police militarization under control by erasing the animal fear that drives it.
• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, email@example.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, email@example.com.