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I lived in the 'militarized' town John Oliver made fun of. Yes, it was that bad.

Published August 20, 2014 6:42 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As comedian John Oliver's segment on police militarization goes viral, a lot of attention is being called to his examples: a BearCat to defend a New Hampshire pumpkin festival against terrorism, a tank in tiny Doraville, Ga., and an armored "mine-resistant" truck driving the streets of Saginaw, Mich.

"Has our city gotten that bad?" an awestruck Saginaw resident is heard asking in a YouTube video of the behemoth.

John Oliver replies, "Here's the thing: No. It hasn't got that bad. Because unless you live in downtown Kabul, there is no practical need for anything like that in your town."

I used to live in Saginaw. It's not Kabul, but it ain't no pumpkin festival either.

Saginaw is one of the most dangerous small cities in America. When I lived there, gunfire was background noise in summer. Arson was seen as a public service in many neighborhoods because it meant one less vacant house. A 3-year-old was shot at a funeral.

As a reporter, I learned not to slow my car to look for house numbers or double back around the block — misdeeds that would upset my sources because their neighbors would hear my engine and think I was about to commit a drive-by. I learned to scan crowds for dustups at crime scenes because they weren't always secure. Media were occasionally threatened by bystanders.

Police were out-gunned. A lieutenant with one local department told me that the shell casings left by celebratory gunfire every New Year provided a frightening inventory of the military weapons on the streets. Officers in another department there complained that magazines would just fall out of their aging guns during target practice. If anyone was militarized, the gangs were.

Things may have changed since I lived there, but let's not assume it isn't "that bad."

That doesn't mean a military vehicle is useful or appropriate for a local sheriff's or police department (Update: Saginaw County is now getting rid of theirs). The most noticeable public safety improvement in Saginaw happened after an intensive federal investigation dismantled a lethal street gang. Summer nights suddenly were quiet. No military hardware was involved.

But focused investigations take a lot of man-hours and money. Actual justice is a big public investment. It's easier to roll a free tank down the street and intimidate entire neighborhoods — a conscionable approach if we don't really value the people who live there.

Fact is, most people in these exhaustingly violent communities are just trying to live their lives and get by like the rest of us, but against odds like I have never faced. Mental energy is finite; can you imagine how much is sucked away when your life depends on listening to the engine pitch of every passing car?

They deserve better. The roughest neighborhoods won't get the kind of policing they need until we recognize that.

—Erin Alberty