WMU-Cooley symposium sparks debate on impact of police using military equipment


On Thursday, Oct. 22, WMU-Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus hosted the annual student-organized WMU-Cooley Law Review Symposium. This year’s panel discussion, “The Legal Consequences of Police Militarization,” focused on impact of equipment used by police forces as well as recent attacks on police.

 National experts and community leaders came together to explore the use of body cameras, bulletproof vests, drones, tanks and other common military equipment that have been deployed by local police agencies.

The panel was moderated by Tonya Krause-Phelan, professor, WMU-Cooley Law School; and featured Kara Dansky, former senior counsel for ACLU’s Center for Justice; Joseph Jones, president and CEO, Grand Rapids Urban League; Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young, Kent County Sheriff’s Office; Darel Ross, co-executive director, LINC Community Revitalization, Inc.; Brian Lennon, Warner, Norcross and Judd attorney and former federal prosecutor and trial attorney, U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division; and Gerry Faber, assistant prosecuting attorney, Kent County.

The main topic of discussion was whether or not the police force has become too dependent on the use of equipment from the military. Dansky believes they have.

“I think that police militarization doesn’t protect public safety, but actually makes things more dangerous,” said Dansky. She pulled examples from the incident in Ferguson. “They could have de-escalated the situation and they chose to show up with tactical vehicles and military gear and battle-dress uniforms, and that’s frightening and alienating to a community that’s already in pain.”

Dansky went on to provide possible solutions for the issues facing the nation. She advocated creating local agencies to approve requests for weapons, budgets and monetary spending, create and implement guidelines and standards, as well as review department performances.

LaJoye-Young countered Dansky, stating the equipment is only used defensively and helps protect the public. “We are here to protect and serve, and if we don’t have the proper equipment to do it, we’re not as effective and more people, including citizens, officers and suspects become injured in the process.” said LaJoye-Young.

 Faber doesn’t believe police are using excessive equipment from the military, especially in Kent County, saying there is actually a trend toward non-lethal force with the use of Tasers and annual training. “I have not seen militarization in Kent County, and I question what the origin is of this belief in our area.”

Ross challenged the panel and audience to look at the issue from a different angle. “Police militarization alone is not the issue, but instead the overly militarized police force and the lack of community input is the root of the problem,” said Ross. “The community should have a right to define what it means to be overly militarized.”

With all the recent attention on attacks on law officers and deaths of individuals such as Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, the panelists agreed this is an issue that’s prevalent in our society and one that needs to be addressed collaboratively.

“No outcome will result from pointing fingers at each other, instead the community and law enforcement must be encouraged to work together,” said Jones.