The national news stories about Ferguson, Missouri, the heavy-duty local arms brought to bear by local law enforcement and the general militarization of law enforcement raised the question: Here in the Northwest, too?
In our small home town of 2,000 people, this isn't much an issue: The mode here is community policing, and it's worked just fine over the years; our town isn't much militarized. Our county (Yamhill, in Oregon) is among the small minority which hasn't received military surplus gear, which is where a great deal of the arms come from.
The New York Times has mapped, by county, the recipients of such surplus gear from coast to coast, since 2006. Bearing in mind the eight-year time frame, the number do tend to look a little more modest then they first seem, so that should be borne in mind.) The overwhelming majority of counties have participated. In Washington state, all but three of the 39 counties have participated; in Oregon, all but 10 of the 36 counties do; and in Idaho, all but nine of the 44 do.
(The counties not opting in are – Washington: Ferry, Columbia and Garfield; Oregon: Yamhill, Benton, Linn, Curry, Jacons, Lake, Harney, Crook, Jefferson, Wasco; Idaho: Adams, Payette, Elmore, Boise, Camas, Cassia, Custer, Butte, Teton).
What do they get? Assault rifles – defined here as including 5.56-mm and 7.62-mm rifles, were sent to nearly all Northwest counties that received any surplus goods at all.
You might expect the most expansive armory would be the region' by-far largest county, King, and it is: 201 night-vision pieces, 120 assault rifles, 105 body armor pieces – plus two helicopters and one mine-resistent vehicle. (One other Northwest county, Snohomish, also snagged a helicopter.)
Do they really have many road mines to worry about in King County? You might ask small, rural Lincoln County, Washington, the same thing: It also has such a vehicle. So do a number of other counties, including Snohomish, Pierce, Whatco, Yakima, Lewis, and Chelan in Washington, Clackamas, Polk and Baker in Oregon, and Canyon, Kootenai and Franklin in Idaho.
Multnomah County, home of make-love-not-war Portland, picked up 88 assault rifles (though nothing else). Lane County (Eugene) grabbed 490 night vision pieces (what's going on there at night?), plus 76 assault rifles, 36 body armor pieces and two armored vehicles.
Even many of the smallest, most lightly populated counties, with only a few law enforcement personnel, picked up some good. Little Clark County, Idaho, with fewer than 1,000 people and light law enforcement (not a lot usually is needed there), got three assault rifles. Up on the Canadian border, Boundary County got not only five assault rifles and one body armor piece but – and you really have to wonder about this – 203 night-vision pieces.
You also have to wonder about the counties that picked up on military grenade launchers. In Oregon, Deschutes and Klamath obtained them, and so did Bannock and Blaine in Idaho.
Several questions emerge from all of this. One is, what is the cost of maintaining and securing all this? Another is, how much of it is really needed? Another: What's the temptation to use all this fancy (and in some cases deadly) equipment that's just, you know, lying around?
And: Is the Northwest really dangerous enough that most of it could be described as a militarized zone?