It’s obvious and understandable why Buffalo police officers want high-powered weapons. The ambushes of their follow officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge cannot help but rivet their attention and highlight their own vulnerability to snipers.
It is tempting in the throes of a crisis to act fast – to do something that sounds logical, and to do it quickly. The question is whether providing the weapons sought by members of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association would make them and the city safer.
It’s not a slam-dunk case.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who has earned the respect of the community, has previously expressed doubts about that idea. His opinion carries significant weight, but the proposal is worth reviewing nevertheless, to determine if the union’s request – or some variation of it – is appropriate under the circumstances.
Those circumstances say that the PBA’s request is not without merit. As its first vice president, John T. Evans, observed, “For a police officer to respond to an active shooter with a high-powered rifle, we’re pretty much defenseless. We’d have to wait for the SWAT team. In the meantime, the carnage could be terrible.”
The SWAT team has the kind of weapons the PBA would like to make available to officers generally. What the union wants is for the city to purchase up to 400 AR-15s, at a cost of around $1,000 each. They would then be distributed more broadly to officers.
Evans has an obvious point, but other important questions arise:
• Is it sensible to spend $400,000 on weapons whose main purpose is for a circumstance that may never occur?
• Would that money, spent elsewhere, more effectively protect more officers? It seems uncertain that ready access to such weaponry would have saved police lives in Dallas or Baton Rouge.
• What would be the effect of further militarizing police who are already seen as too distant from those they are meant to protect?
Part of the problem facing police is the psychological distance and suspicion between police and the communities they serve. If arming police with AR-15s makes them safer, it might also drive them further from the people they are sworn to protect. That’s worth thinking about, too.
• How much would it cost to train officers to use these high-powered weapons safely and effectively?
Some in the community who already harbor doubts about police prejudices worry that the weapons could end up being used to harm citizens rather than protect them. That’s why Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, a pastor who is open to the union’s request, wants police to undergo anti-bias training before allowing the use of such weapons. It’s an important qualifier.
But this is a moment that calls for sober evaluation, not a knee-jerk response. Evans is correct that police are outgunned by criminals, but what will his plan do to make cops safer? That’s among the questions that need a clear answer before the city spends a large sum of money that could change the nature of policing in New York’s second-largest city.
Police are worried, and they have cause to be. It’s neither surprising nor unreasonable that the union believes it needs to be better armed. But that decision shouldn’t be made in the heat of the fear generated in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Any review needs to be thorough and, as much as possible, dispassionate.
Derenda’s opinion on this will be important and should be given great weight. So will the considered opinion of city leaders whose jobs require them to be especially careful before making a decision as consequential as this.