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More trust, not military weaponry, will make cities safer for police, citizens

Policing is always a balancing act. Clearly, officers need to be equipped to do their jobs, but not be so distant and intimidating that the communities they serve view them with suspicion.

Indeed, the concept of service is one of the factors that separates successful departments from troubled ones, and is one of the reasons generally to support President Obama’s decision to restrict the kind of military gear that police departments may have.

That kind of equipment – including armored vehicles – is appropriate to an army on the move in hostile territory, but not to police departments on American streets where inhabitants pay the salaries of those protectors. It can, as many people have observed, make police seem more like an occupying force than an agency whose mission is to protect and serve.

That doesn’t mean all military equipment is unsuitable to police departments, especially those in cash-strapped cities. Communications equipment is certainly appropriate, for example. Some protective gear and even weapons may be legitimate, as well, especially given the nation’s hostility toward gun control. It is important to remember that police are not infrequently outgunned by the bad guys. It’s a matter of balance.

The issue has become more urgent as some police officers and even entire departments have been shown to be abusing their authority while, at the same time, other officers have been shot in what looks like a sick and indiscriminate response to troubled police-community relations.

It has to stop somewhere and, indeed, efforts are already underway. Obama visited Camden, N.J., earlier this week to highlight the progress of a poor and stressed community that is making great strides in improving those relations. That work began with replacing its failing police force with a county-run system that prioritizes community relations and which, as a result, has become one of the country’s few bright spots in the formidable but essential task of building trust. It can be done.

Part of the effort of connecting police departments with their communities has to include the kind of contact that military equipment inevitably discourages. You can’t relate to an officer in a 20-ton, 10-foot-tall armored vehicle the way you can with one on foot or on a bicycle.

Still, police work is dangerous and officers need to be armed and protected in ways that most people don’t. Washington should help with that where it can, whether it is through military gear appropriate to a police department or through Obama’s plan to spend $75 million over the next three years to buy about 50,000 body cameras for police officers. That effort will help to serve the cause of trust and accountability by police and citizens, alike.

Rebuilding community relations isn’t solely a matter for police departments, of course. Citizens have a role and an obvious interest in forging strong and respectful links to the officers in their departments. There is work to do there, too.

But it’s an unequal relationship. Private citizens are not vested with enormous authority over the liberty of their peers. That puts the onus on police and governments at all levels to take the critical first steps. Some police won’t like Obama’s decision on military equipment, but it was the right move.