July 21, 2016 03:36 PM

Should local police focus on arming themselves for the next protest, or defending themselves from the next Gavin Long?

Photo by Christiaan Mader

Acadiana’s police training academy will graduate 33 cadets on July 22, dispatching the newly badged peace officers into arguably the most complicated time for policing in recent memory. Louisiana’s police agencies are among the worst compensated in the nation, a problem born by the South altogether, and by measure of crime statistics and incarceration rates, are among the most overworked.

Back in February of this year, the Lafayette Police Department released updated uniform crime statistics for 2015, showing close to 12,000 arrests made among more than 22,000 calls for service. While a slight overall dip from last year, that’s a lot of touch and go for a department pivoting to face better-armed offenders, and now deranged gunmen out to murder officers where they stand. Even if Dallas and Baton Rouge are relatively isolated tragedies, they expose police vulnerabilities by way of legally obtained tactical weapons.

Long rifles confiscated by sheriff's deputies in Lafayette Parish
Image courtesy Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office
Four new deputies and two new city cops are joining departments evidently not entirely equipped to defend them from those threats. Police departments typically decline to publish their tactical materiel and squads, a concession to the need to keep their weaknesses under wraps. But recent public statements from Lafayette’s two top cops have given a peek at the state of readiness among Lafayette’s patrolmen and deputies.

“I said ‘If you wanna do something, I need body armor and medical kits because we are not prepared for the current threats that face us,” Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber told the Daily Advertiser, in a piece about an area attorney raising money to donate rifle-stopping body armor to the sheriff’s office. “We’re using rifles we confiscated from the evidence room and body armor that won’t stop a rifle round.”

Set aside for the moment the gun control argument, and consider the realities of underfunded departments facing unknown quantities of assault rifles in the hands of violent offenders. According to the Gun Ownership Action League, there are between 20 and 30 million American-owned “modern sporting rifles” — a gun lobby euphemism for rifles “often misconstrued by the media, politicians, and gun control advocates as “assault rifles.’” Unpack that number alongside the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Aurora, Newtown, Baton Rouge and Dallas — all of which involved MSRs or assault rifles or whatever you want to call them — and you can see the threat is pervasive.

That widespread distribution of deadly arms weakens the priorities laid bare by LPD Interim Police Chief Reggie Thomas’ recent emergency requisition and receipt of $120,000 for protective gear, upgrading the agency’s crowd control capabilities.

Thomas told the city council that the department “normally” uses “Level 3” armored panels, slid into the ballistic vests issued to each officer. Lafayette Police spokesman Cpl. Paul Mouton tells this newspaper the department has some “Level 4” armored panels capable of stopping the kind of rifle shot used to slay five officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, but not enough to outfit the entire department.

While we’re sure that Thomas would not have turned down money for armored panels were that on the table, the revelations from Garber and Thomas that Lafayette cops are perhaps ill-protected undermines the wisdom of an emergency request for riot gear. Would that money have been better spent on the rifle-stopping panels?

LPSO is reportedly also looking to purchase new riot gear.

To be sure, it's difficult to compare the urgency of utility between riot gear and body armor. They both serve similar functions in dramatically different applications. Lafayette police have not really been pressed against protest lines in recent memory, nor have they dealt with the terror of a military-trained, military-armed maniac hell-bent on twisted vengeance. The closest that Lafayette cops have come to locking up with protest mobs were as on-call bodies for the recent unrest in Baton Rouge, a call that ultimately never came.

After all, it was precisely those protests that prompted Thomas to review his department’s equipment and seek an upgrade. No one could conscionably argue that, given riot gear reportedly decades out of date, the LPD and LPSO don’t need to modernize their protective equipment. But as Gavin Long demonstrated with deadly aplomb, it appears that there are persistent, day-to-day threats to cops on the beat that should be addressed with more priority, given limited resources.

You could argue that the sight of cops in oversized, combat grade vests would contribute to the growing appearance of police militarization. Rifle-stopping panels are indeed legitimately military grade apparel. But they’re also not necessarily intended for day-to-day policing. Officers carry several “just in case” implements that see seldom use when compared with items like Tasers and batons. Having top notch body armor nearby is better than not having it all.

Yes, the stuff is pretty expensive, too. The panels that attorney Jean Ouellet’s fundraising efforts (referenced above) will purchase cost roughly $300 a unit. But given the current political climate, it would seem difficult for any politician to say no to outfitting patrolmen with the armor in phases.

Of course, there’s no perfect aegis for law enforcement. There are some contingencies that you just can’t plan for. But it’s plain that, with current gun laws in place, there could be greater extant threats to Lafayette’s beat cops than the possibility of civil unrest.

It’s a tough time indeed to become a new cop, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.