DURHAM – The University of New Hampshire Justice Studies Program hosted a panel discussion on the militarization of law enforcement. Panelists included Carla Gericke, President of the Free State Project; Perry Plummer, Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for New Hampshire; JR Hoell, NH State Representative and Secretary of the New Hampshire Firearms Coalition; and Anthony F. Colarusso Jr., Chief of Police in Dover, NH. The free event took place on Friday, April 17th from 2:10PM to 4:00PM on the UNH campus in Durham and was open to the public. The panel was moderated by Justice Studies Graduate Student Austin Manor and was attended by approximately 40 students, professors and members of the public.
Each of the four panelists made an initial statement, after which they engaged in Q&A with attendees.
In Gericke’s opening remarks, she mentioned her background as an émigré from the police state of South Africa. She continued,
I mention the movie District 9 because I believe art, literature, and pop culture can inform us, teach us, and help us better understand the past, the present, and the future.
I’m going to ask a series of seemingly elementary questions, but I want you to consider them seriously, and I hope at the end of today’s discussion, you will remember them and continue to ponder them in the context of your own life, and when considering news you hear or read relating to police actions.
When you watch a sci-fi movie, whether it’s an oldie but goodie like The Matrix, or The Hunger Games, or, Divergent:
1. Who do you root for?
3. Do you think that sort of future is likely at all in America? and
4. If so, how do you think the society got from here, the today we live in now, to there, a totalitarian, dystopian future with limited freedoms and state control over almost every facet of life?
Gericke discussed the City of Concord’s recent acquisition of a BEARCAT. The City’s grant application referred to members of the Free State Project and Occupy New Hampshire as potential terrorist threats. Dozens of activists attended the city council meeting and testified against the acquisition, while volunteers gathered thousands of signatures from town residents in opposition. Despite all this, the city council ignored the expressed wishes of its constituents and accepted the BEARCAT.
Plummer stated that he agreed 100% with the issues Gericke raised regarding the Concord BEARCAT application. He also stated that, while he served on the committee that submitted the grant application to the federal government, he “wasn’t at that meeting”.
Chief Colarusso commented wryly that “sometimes law enforcement is our own worst enemy”. He repeated this statement several times during the panel discussion.
Rep. Hoell is known as one of the staunchest Second Amendment advocates in the New Hampshire legislature. He received an A rating from the citizen watchdog group New Hampshire Liberty Alliance last year. He encouraged attendees to google “military 1033 program”. This program allows the federal government to transfer “personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” According to an article in Newsweek, “1033 procurements are not matters of public record. And the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which coordinates distribution of military surplus, refuses to reveal the names of agencies requesting “tactical” items, like assault rifles and MRAPs — for security reasons”.
Hoell pointed out that rural Belknap County (which, according to the 2014 census, has a population of only 60,000) possesses two grenade launchers! As a design engineer for the aerospace industry, he is very knowledgable in the process of designing equipment for specific purposes. He emphasized that there is defensive gear and offensive gear. He’s “all for cops protecting themselves, but the line between these two types of gear, which are designed for different purposes, has become very muddy. We as a state can turn around and say ‘No, we don’t want this’”.
Gericke commented that the only reason she had become aware that the non-profit organization which she heads had been cited in Concord’s BEARCAT application was because the ACLU investigated the matter and brought it to the public’s attention. She asked Plummer several questions. At one point, Plummer stated that New Hampshire currently has 11 BEARCATS, which Gericke pointed out is not accurate. She stated “We need transparency and accountability. You are sitting there and can’t even tell me how many BEARCATS we have in New Hampshire; that’s a problem!”
Director Plummer’s response: “That’s not within my realm”.
Gericke then asked Plummer about the DHS/FEMA building located on Smokey Bear Blvd in Concord. At this point, the class’ professor interjected, asking Gericke to stop asking the public official so many questions and give the students a chance to ask questions, finishing with “if you could be more respectful, Atty Gericke”.
A student asked the question “What can we do about handgun escalation? Most LEO’s I’ve spoken with seem to be in favor of sensible gun reform.” Hoell pointed out that it’s legal for residents to carry guns, unconcealed, in New Hampshire. But movies and media have caused a lot of people to have a negative emotional response when they see someone in public with a gun. This sometimes results in police officers’ time being wasted when a member of the public reports someone simply for displaying a handgun.
Chief Colarusso stated “99% of what we do is defensive”. He also acknowledged that “some departments are a little wayward”. He favors CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.,) accreditation for all departments. He believes “we need broader, more defined policies. But you also need parameters and a philosophy. It all starts with hiring good people.” The Chief said it “ruins my day” when the news covers incidents such as a cop shooting someone in the back.
Liberty activist Bill Domenico, who acknowledged that he was not a student and offered to let any student who had a question go before him, asked to make two comments. He said he attended a CALEA hearing and spoke against it. It seemed like a big back-patting, mutual admiration session for cops and a waste of time. He then pointed out what BEARCAT stands for: Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Truck. At this point he was shouted down by multiple attendees and panelists. Gericke and Domenico were the only two individuals asked to stop speaking during the two-hour event.
Another student asked about how much training police receive to use military-grade equipment, and how does it compare to the training the military receives? Chief Colarusso responded that the training is totally different. It covers scenarios such as clearing a building, hostage training, and how to contain a situation.
Hoell agreed with the Chief’s response, and said we need to put more emphasis on psychology, and training the police to emphasize deescalation.
The Professor asked the question how come “our libertarian friends” say the individual should be able to own armor-piercing weapons, but the state should prevent police and other state agents from having gear strong enough to defend against such weapons? He stated that it all comes down to home rule, and how you define that.
Rep. Hoell responded that that is an excellent question. He then referenced HB407, a bill in the current legislative session “prohibiting the state and political subdivisions from acquiring military-equipped vehicles or equipment which are not readily available in an open national commercial market”. He pointed out that, after a legislative committee reviewed the bill, they realized that it was written too broadly and could potentially restrict government officials from obtaining supplies for which they have a legitimate need, such as penicillin. He reiterated that there is a difference between defensive gear and offensive gear, and that it was not being suggested that the police be denied defensive gear.
Hoell mentioned that individuals have a responsibility to defend themselves because multiple Supreme Court cases have said the police don’t have a responsibility to protect the public. Chief Colarusso and the professor both responded “that’s not true”.
Gericke applauded the Chief for specifying in Dover’s BEARCAT application that the vehicle wouldn’t be used for riot control or demonstrations on campus. She also referenced how the notorious Weare Police Department has been trying to improve its image by wearing body cameras, amongst other steps. She encouraged attendees to record the police’s actions, while staying out of their way and allowing them to do their jobs, to let them know that they are being monitored and will be held accountable.
One student stated that her father is a cop, she’s knows “he’s a good guy”, and she is in favor of protecting cops. Also, she wants cops to have gear to protect her. She asked what the panelists want them to have? No gear at all? Hoell reiterated “I don’t have a problem with defensive equipment”. It’s about tactics, training. He cited the Virginia Tech shooting, which had a huge impact on him. During that incident, Prof. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, was killed while saving the lives of all but one of the students in his classroom. Hoell pointed out the necessity for good people to be armed and prepared, because the response time of emergency responders can’t be relied upon.
Another student said he plans on becoming a cop in Boston after graduation. He asked how do we stop the few bad apples who want to be ‘Rambo’ from getting into police departments? Chief Colarusso’s response was that we should extend probation periods and conduct extensive background investigations. He pointed out that there is a council that decertifies cops for bad behavior. He stated that police employment is much more stringent than the private sector.
Rep. Hoell brought up the subject of Laurie’s List: a non-public list of New Hampshire police officers who have perjured themselves. He’d love it if cops got fired for getting on that list.
Chief Colarusso said Laurie’s List is not just for perjury; it’s for any lying on the job. He mentioned a Dover cop who lied about falling asleep in his car and was fired for it.
Another student, who said he plans to join the LAPD after graduation, asked about civilian oversight committees.
Director Plummer responded “You’re the checks and balances at the end of the day.” If the majority of citizens want something, and the city council ignores them, vote them out of office. “Being an informed and active citizen is extremely important, whatever side of the issues you’re on.”
The panelists then made brief closing remarks. Responding to Gericke’s earlier question that was cut off by the professor, Plummer stated that the Incident Planning and Operations Center – Department of Safety/FEMA building on Smokey Bear Blvd in Concord is used for “99% emergency management”. He also offered the class a tour. Plummer pointed out that the FUSION center is audited every year. His cell number is 603-419-0255 and he welcomes calls at any time.
Chief Colarusso invited everyone to do a ride-along with the Dover PD. The only caveat was that you must be 18 or older.
In Hoell’s closing remarks, he stated, “We will have the society that we create for ourselves. Part of that comes down to what authority we grant to government. The more self-control you have, the less government you need. That comes down to making good decisions.”
In her closing remarks, Gericke encouraged everyone to google “qualified immunity”. She pointed out that ignorance of the law isn’t allowed for the general public, but is an allowable defense for police. “Shouldn’t we all be treated equally?” Chief Colarusso retorted that that’s inaccurate. Gericke repeated her request that the students do their own research.
Gericke and Hoell also encouraged attendees to do their own research and google the Supreme Court case Town of Castle Rock, CO vs Gonzales.