Police militarization and perspectives discussed in Buffalo State forum
Members of the Criminal Justice department at Buffalo State College say it's a balancing act, protecting public freedom and safety while allowing police the right to protect themselves. During a forum hosted at the college Thursday, speakers discussed perceptions of police militarization and how they vary depending on time and place.
The forum, titled "The Role of Police Militarization in a Democratic Society," was hosted to coincide with Buffalo State's observation of Constitution Day. Speakers said there may be more scrutiny now about how the nation's police do their work than ever before.
"This is the basic paradox in a democracy. Freedom and liberty are ensured only if the government has the ability to interfere, on occasion, with freedom and liberty," said Dr. Scott Phillips, associate professor of criminal justice at Buffalo State.
Phillips, during his part of the presentation, showed two photos of SWAT officers and armored vehicles. He asked the audience, "which one was Ferguson?"
It was actually a trick question. Neither photo was from last year's riots in Ferguson, Missouri, but rather from mass shooting scenes in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino. That exercise led to discussion about the dilemma police face with imaging and public perception.
Peter Carey, chief of University Police at Buffalo State, says in the modern era of terrorism, the days of being able to recognize threats by enemies in uniforms are over. As public safety concerns have evolved, so too have police tactics.
"Part of what drives that, and it is a basic premise in criminal justice, is the public's fear of crime, the public sense of not feeling safe in our own country," Carey said. "When you go to tourist attractions, when you're at bridges and tunnels, our public has a fear of crime and it's the police responsibility to address that fear of crime."
Also discussed was how a beefed-up police presence may stir feelings of security in some settings, such as a Buffalo Bills home game, and mistrust and tension in other settings, such as high-crime areas within the City of Buffalo.
There were no moments of heated debate. Students asked the speakers about educational strategies that may improve mutual understanding between police and the community. Amgler Moya, a Bronx resident and third-year criminal justice major at Buffalo State, told the panel that students like her have a responsibility to talk with peers who may immediate have negative feelings when seeing the appearance of police.
Moya says the community needs to better understand how and why police do what they do.
"I feel like just the appearance isn't enough. What are they doing that makes you consider them militarized?" she said. "You need more facts to back your statements up."
Chief Carey closed the forum by suggesting that one way the public can better understand police is to join them. He encouraged those in attendance to take a civil service exam.