For hundreds of Interior commuters in West Fairbanks on Tuesday morning, the standoff between police officers and an armed man threatening to kill himself and potentially harm others was a nuisance that closed roads and extended their drive to work, in some cases by as much as an hour. For the law enforcement officials at the scene, it was a life-threatening experience — and also one of their regular duties.
Much has been made of the militarization of police departments across the country, as departments have received surplus military equipment, weapons and vehicles for pennies on the dollar. Citizen concerns over that militarization bore fruit last month, as officers in Ferguson, Missouri, tear-gassed protesters and stood in tank-like Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles with military weapons.
The disproportionate response to a group of largely unarmed citizens who were already upset about police actions turned what was already a dangerous situation into a firestorm and raised doubts about both police accountability and progress in race relations.
In the recent standoff here in Fairbanks, we had the opportunity to see military-style equipment used by law enforcement for a legitimate purpose.
Officers at the scene of the standoff Tuesday were seen wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, and Alaska State Troopers deployed their “Bearcat” tactical vehicle — a military-style machine that resembles a cross between an up-armored Humvee and an MRAP. Unlike in Ferguson, this considered use of militaristic gear wasn’t a provocation, but rather an attempt to protect the officers involved — and through that protection, to reduce the odds that Michael Bracht, the man at the center of the standoff, would himself be killed.
Officer-involved shootings are diverse in nature, but one common thread running through many is that police fire on suspects when they believe themselves or others to be in mortal danger. In using the Bearcat vehicle, officers were able to breach the vehicle with a ram mounted to the bumper without sending their members into harm’s way, and the vehicle also gave them cover when Mr. Bracht emerged from the vehicle with a handgun. Had there been officers on foot and close at hand for the operation, there would have been a much higher likelihood that Mr. Bracht’s sometimes erratic actions might have triggered a burst of fire.
The public is right to closely monitor the adoption of military gear and tactics by the police — the two entities are separately controlled, have vastly different missions and should remain that way. The situations in which it’s appropriate for police to deploy as a paramilitary entity are rare, and the decision to do so should be carefully considered and used only to the extent necessary.
But we saw one of those situations on Tuesday, and it’s a tribute to the restraint and professionalism of our local law enforcement officials that it ended as positively as it did.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Sept. 14