America’s craziest sherriff, Maricopa County’s Joe Arpaio, has announced plans to use money seized from drug dealers to arm his deputies with automatic weapons. Speaking to local television station 3TV on Wednesday, Arpaio said “thanks” to “dope dealers” for providing him the money to acquire unnecessary deadly weapons:
VOLENTINE: Why don’t you already have automatic weapons?
ARPAIO: We do have some, but everybody does not. I’m trying to get 500 weapons more to arm all our deputies.
VOLENTINE: How difficult will that be?
ARPAIO: It’s not going to be difficult. I’m going to use money that we seized from dope peddlers. So, I’m going to thank them for helping arm our deputies.
Arpaio’s “free guns for everyone!” strategy is a recipe for getting bystanders killed. During a shootout outside the Empire State Building last August, all nine civilians injured were hit by stray bullets fired by handgun-wielding police officers. Average police accuracy, according to data from the New York and Los Angeles police departments, ranges from 18 to roughly 30 percent. Those numbers are so low despite extensive police training with handguns because of the inherently unpredictable human response to life-or-death situations. So simply providing officers with exponentially more deadly automatic weapons without first requiring an extensive training regimen, as Arpaio appears to be proposing, is a recipe for deadly accidents.
There’s also reason to believe the Maricopa County deputies in particular shouldn’t be trusted with automatic weapons. Arpaio has instructed his deputies to use automatic weapons against undocumented immigrants who are “attempting to escape.” The Maricopa County department is under investigation by the Department of Justice Civil Rights division for systematic discrimination against Latinos. And Arpaio responded to the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut by sending armed civilian posses with “questionable pasts” into public schools.
Finally, the notion of using profits from drug arrests to fuel the militarization of police forces is uniquely dangerous. This practice, known as “asset forfeiture,” has become a way to make our violent and counterproductive “war on drugs” self-sustaining: police get huge windfalls for making drug busts, which they then use to buy bigger guns and invest in more anti-drug policing. Moreover, as Radley Balko notes, “Asset forfeiture not only encourages police agencies to use resources and manpower on drug crimes at the expense of violent crimes, it also provides an incentive for police agencies to actually wait until drugs are on the streets before making a bust.”