To protect and serve

The Ellsworth City Council last week approved the police chief’s request for eight new semi-automatic rifles. The sentiment expressed by many readers can be summed up thus: “It’s too bad it’s come to this.”

But has it come to this? Has violent crime in Ellsworth, or even the threat of violence, increased to the point that the department’s existing arsenal of military-style rifles requires an upgrade?

Ellsworth isn’t New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago. There are lawbreakers in and around Ellsworth, to be sure, but the laws broken most commonly are drug laws and the victims are the users themselves.

To this point, Maine’s police and sheriffs’ departments seem to have avoided much of the militarization that’s occurred in many city, town and county law enforcement agencies around the country.

Scenes of local police looking altogether like soldiers on an Afghanistan battlefield — complete with assault-type weapons, armored personnel carriers and heavy-duty body armor — have become almost commonplace on the nightly news. Surely that cannot be necessary here in our state.

Those in our population who have had military experience know that a rifle is not the appropriate weapon for use in up-close, personal confrontations — the kind of interaction that police here in Maine are most likely to encounter.

However infrequently they occur, though, we realize there are times when police may need a rifle. Like a fire extinguisher in a home, it is an infrequently used tool but one you want to have on hand when the need arises.

And Police Chief Pete Bickmore makes a reasonable case for standardized equipment for his officers, in which the magazines each officer carries can be used in any other officer’s weapon.

The $8,800 expense is not an issue. The money will come from an account funded through criminal forfeitures.

All of this is to say that the purchase of these M4-style rifles — the M4 is now the go-to, standard-issue weapon for the United States Marine Corps — is an appropriate occasion to talk about what role we want police to play in our communities.

If such conversations were held elsewhere earlier, other communities might have avoided escalating armament upgrades that pushed “protect and serve” to the brink of waging war.

We believe the Ellsworth Police Department does a good job of community policing, of reaching out and being proactive when possible. It would be a shame to see the good work it has done and continues to do undermined by a perception that it is trying to arm its way out of a problem, which cannot be done.

When local police start looking more and more like soldiers, as they have elsewhere, it creates a perception of us vs. them that is both dismaying and unhelpful. It additionally undermines the notion and culture of community policing. We do not wish to see our area law enforcement agencies adopt the tools and tactics of the battlefield for use on Main Street.

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