It's not the gear; it's how the gear is used

The events in Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old, have focused attention on police policies, tactics and equipment. Some of that equipment is military gear, provided free to police departments under a Pentagon program. What's important about it is not the hardware itself so much as how and when it is used. It appears that local police officials understand that distinction, and that's a good thing.

Local police agencies haven't lined up for free military hardware — although other departments in Oregon have, according to available data. The Associated Press reports Oregon police departments have collected more than $10 million worth of equipment ranging from night vision equipment to guns to armored vehicles.

Medford Police Chief Tim George says his department, Jackson County's largest, hasn't acquired any equipment from the military. The department did come in for some criticism when it purchased a $256,000 BearCat armored vehicle with money from the department's budget.

George says that vehicle and other equipment in the department's tool chest is necessary to protect the safety of his department's officers when they venture into potentially deadly situations. Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, whose department has a similar vehicle, says the same.

Both departments have used their BearCat vehicles when officers embarked on high-risk warrant operations aimed at arresting suspects who might be armed and likely to resist, and for responding to armed standoffs. Those situations are relatively rare, and both George and Winters say the vehicles should not be deployed routinely.

It's hard to argue with officer safety, and no one wants to see police officers needlessly placed at risk.

But there is a difference between serving a felony warrant on a potentially armed suspect and confronting groups of unarmed protesters with officers dressed in combat gear and riding atop military vehicles as though they are entering a war zone. That's what happened in Ferguson, with the predictable result of escalating the situation beyond what it might have been.

Certainly there is no justification for protesters to destroy property or loot businesses. But there is also good reason for police to avoid overreacting to crowds of protesters who are not behaving violently..

Crowd control is a delicate balance, and not an easy task. Local police officials clearly know this.

"It's all about time, place and manner," George told the Mail Tribune. "... you've got to show compassion."

A little compassion would have gone a long way in Ferguson, Mo.

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