Chris Marshall: Creeping militarisation of the police should be resisted

Sheriff Peyton C Grinnell fronts an appeal to Lake County residents urging them to report dealers, flanked by four masked officers.
Sheriff Peyton C Grinnell fronts an appeal to Lake County residents urging them to report dealers, flanked by four masked officers.
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The black balaclavas, swelling soundtrack and threatening sign off were redolent of a terrorist propaganda video.

But this was not the work of Islamic State or al-Qaeda, rather it was the latest Facebook post of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.

In response to a number of overdoses among local heroin users, Sheriff Peyton Grinnell had a message for the dealers: “We are coming for you. Run.”

The short YouTube video went viral earlier this month less for its message than for the way it was delivered.

Flanking the sheriff were four armed men wearing ski masks and dark glasses.

The insinuation from the force was clear: We are not afraid to use violence and even deadly force.

The video has split opinion in the United States, with supporters – including many local residents – applauding Lake County for its firm stance.

Others have warned about the creeping militarisation of the police and the mistake of fighting violence with yet more violence.

David Simon, the respected journalist and creator of The Wire, tweeted: “Looking very Isis. Maybe behead a suspect or two.”

In the days following last month’s terrorist attack in Westminster, Police Scotland put on its own show of strength.

Amid suggestions the force remains unprepared for a similar incident north of the Border, heavily armed – and balaclava-clad – specialist firearms officers were shown off to the media at a police firing range near East Kilbride.

The exercise was a cynical yet effective spoiling tactic to avert the media’s attention from a Scottish Police Federation debate on armed policing during which officers warned they are not equipped to defend themselves against the dangers they face.

Police Scotland is a long way from Lake County in its approach to tackling crime, but the force nevertheless stands at a crucial juncture when it comes to how it protects not only the public, but its own officers.

It is currently consulting on Policing 2026, its draft 10-year strategy for re-shaping itself to meet the twin challenges of shrinking budgets and evolving crime threats.

Important decisions will need to be made in the coming months, but it would wrong if that led to a service which becomes more remote from the communities it serves by becoming one that is more heavily armed.

Pressure is, however, mounting on senior officers to change tack on the issue of firearms.

Last week a knifeman injured two people in Glasgow city centre before taking his own life.

The SPF, which represents the rank and file, said it was “deeply worrying” that armed officers were not dispatched to the incident.

The decision does seem a strange one, and senior officers have yet to fully explain how unarmed officers are supposed to defend themselves against an armed attacker.

But incidents such as these, alarming as they are, remain rare.

Neither the public nor the media has any real way of assessing the scale of the terror threat, so we must take senior officers at their word when they say they have sufficient numbers carrying firearms.

Our police officers deserve to be protected, but that should not lead to creation of divisions between them and us.

Masked SWAT teams might be what’s required in Lake County, but Scotland can do without.