The images of the Ferguson, Mo., police force in full body armor riding military-grade vehicles, pointing assault rifles and shooting tear gas during civil unrest justifiably alarmed the nation. Rioting and looting sparked the initial response, but then authorities withdrew the show of military force after it only served to inflame peaceful protests.
As authorities investigate the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer, and injustice and racism once again command center stage, another issue confronts the nation: Should America demilitarize the police? Or is that an overreaction to one event?
President Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of the federal government's strategy to equip local law enforcement agencies with automatic rifles, mine-resistant vehicles, military-grade body armor and other surplus gear as a countermeasure against terrorism.
That review will include whether local authorities receive adequate training to use the equipment appropriately. Congressional hearings are planned, too.
That's a prudent approach instead of the knee-jerk call by some to demilitarize police.
Congress created the Pentagon program that shifts surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies in the 1990s to help police battle drug crime and violence. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, that program accelerated as a counterterrorism strategy.
As Herald law enforcement reporter Jessica De Leon discovered in Sunday's thorough look at this issue through a local lens, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office holds an arsenal of military-grade gear from the Pentagon program. Assault rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles and other equipment allow the department to be prepared for dangerous situations that require force to meet force.
Sheriff Brad Steube makes the sensible point that law enforcement should not be at a disadvantage when confronting dangerous and violent incidents.
He also points out another justifiable concern: officer safety. Criminals are sometimes armed with automatic weapons that fire armor-piercing shells, and armored vehicles and semi-automatic weapons are a necessary defense.
The strange look of law enforcement officers in camouflage fatigues, combat helmets and body armor while armed with automatic weapons is indeed unsettling. Until a situation arises that demands that kind of response.
When and where that might occur is impossible to predict, but with foreign extremists continuing to threaten to unleash large-scale destruction on American soil, local law enforcement could be on the front lines of the war on terror.
Certainly, authorities must exercise restraint in deploying such a maximum display of force, and the public must trust law enforcement to be wary of unleashing an overly strong response to crime and civil unrest. That did not occur in Missouri as officers pointed high-powered weapons at nonthreatening protesters whose hands were raised, an appalling sight that raises questions about the deterioration of civil liberties.
Attorney General Eric Holder framed the issue diplomatically, stating that "displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive."
Furthermore, he stated, "it makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it."
That's a reasonable approach. President Obama's review team and Congress will tackle those questions. Protocols could be warranted to prevent excessive displays of threatening force. But law enforcement shouldn't be disarmed in a rush to judgment.