A column by Mike Myer, executive editor of The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register
The police department in the small town where I grew up in the 1960s had a military-grade Thompson submachine gun. It was a fiercesome weapon, capable of emptying its 30-round magazine in around three seconds.
As far as I know, it was never fired in anger. It was kept locked up in the trunk of the police chief’s car, available primarily to intimidate bad guys.
Lots of police departments had them, along with even more heavy-duty stuff such as Browning Automatic Rifles. And yes, some had hand grenades (most loaded with tear gas).
Yet, until recent years, you didn’t hear much criticism of police departments with military-grade equipment. Why is that?
There are several reasons. One is that after Sept. 11, 2001, federal officials decided the public would feel much more secure if every police and sheriff’s department in the country had tons of military equipment. Not much use for an armored personnel carrier in a rural area? Hey, it’s free. Take it. It’ll be handy for parades.
But there’s another reason, and it predates 9/11.
Gangs and individual drug pushers are far better armed than they were, say, 20 years ago. Do you blame a cop who, told he’s about to go through the front door of a drug pusher’s lair, for asking where he picks up his body armor and assault rifle?
And though the heavily armed, numerous bad guys once stuck to big cities, they’ve spread out. Some of them are right here in the Ohio Valley.
There is a legitimate concern about overuse of SWAT teams in sometimes questionable situations. It happens less often in small towns and rural counties like ours simply because police chiefs and sheriffs are closer to the people they protect and serve – and much less likely to risk harming innocent people. Here in Wheeling, a fellow holed up in a house with a gun is more likely to hear first from one of police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger’s crisis negotiators than from a fellow with an assault rifle.
Which is precisely how the chief in the small town where I grew up handled things.