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A difficult dichotomy for American policing

The so-called “militarization of police” became a topic of intense political conversation after the officer-involved shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old man in Ferguson, MO in August 2014, followed by days of civil unrest. American police departments have been criticized for stockpiling military-grade weapons and gear, which are often used for routine raids, such as serving search warrants, or deployed against protestors, as was done in Ferguson. Critics question whether such equipment is needed by police.

In May, President Obama announced changes to a key federal program transferring such equipment from the Department of Defense to local police, the 1033 Program. The federal government will no longer provide certain types of “heavy military” equipment, including large caliber weapons and ammunition, and law enforcement agencies must submit to stringent federal oversight and restrictions for other equipment, such as riot gear and wheeled armor and tactical vehicles.

But the San Bernardino mass shooting, like the Paris terror attacks, has added another perspective to the debate over “militarization” and what equipment and tactics local police should have access to.

Recent attacks have demonstrated a shift in terrorist tactics where they are no longer interested in negotiating, are heavily armed, and attack ‘soft’ targets with the intent of killing as many people as possible. Speaking on Face the Nation, New York City police commissioner, William J. Bratton, called the Paris attacks a “game changer” for law enforcement. Former Chicago superintendent, Garry McCarthy, acknowledged that terrorists are changing tactics and told his officers, “We’re going to be in a combat situation if these things happen and we have to adjust our strategies in that way.”

U.S. police officials are not alone in advising more aggressive police tactics. Police officials in Europe are demanding heavier weapons and protective gear for counter-terrorism response. In Britain, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, Patricia Gallan, said officers are being trained to “go forward” to confront terrorists.

Indeed, law enforcement has been shifting tactics since the attacks in Mumbai, India. Ordinary patrol police are increasingly expected to confront active shooters without waiting for more heavily armed SWAT teams. Armed with little more than handguns, these officers face heightened danger as evidenced by the death of University of Colorado police officer Garrett Swasey who was killed intervening in the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs.

Ferguson and San Bernardino present a conundrum for law enforcement. One one hand, police need military-grade equipment and new tactics to counter new terrorist tactics. San Bernardino county law enforcement has been the beneficiary of $5.8 million in 1033 Program surplus equipment since 2006; some of which was likely used in the Inland Regional Center response. Equipment acquired through the 1033 Program was on hand during the Boston Marathon bombing.

Ultimately, though, police officers must be peacekeepers, not warfighters. The greatest asset in the fight against terrorism is positive police-community relations – which requires building public trust. Now, more than ever, community policing is essential. Police must cultivate robust and ongoing relationships, especially in immigrant and Muslim communities.

Scott Somers, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and Professor of Emergency Management at Arizona State University.