Ulster County Executive Ryan Op-Ed: "The Militarization of Local Police Forces Must End Now"

Posted June 8, 2020

KINGSTON, N.Y. - Today, the Times Union published an op-ed by County Executive Pat Ryan calling for the end of the militarization of local police forces. County Executive Ryan previously served as a captain in the U.S. Army, deploying twice to combat in Iraq. The op-ed is available here.

Full text of the op-ed is available below:

Last week, I joined thousands of peaceful protestors in our community to raise our voices against generations of injustice and systemic racism in our country. Linked in arms with activists, faith leaders, and community members, as we reached the middle of the Mid-Hudson Bridge, we encountered a wall of law enforcement officers outfitted as if they were going to combat. Just behind them, a military-grade armored vehicle stood at the ready.

Over a decade ago, I had used equipment like this in combat, but I never imagined these weapons of war would be pointed at me and a group of peaceful protesters — my own community turned into a war zone.

As protests across the country continue in the wake of the horrific killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black Americans by the police, the White House has threatened to deploy the military domestically and encouraged local police forces to use military weaponry, referring to our neighborhoods as "battlespace" that should be "dominated." Arming our local police departments with military-grade equipment as if they are going to war is unequivocally not the answer.

As a West Point graduate and Army officer, I have been trained to use these weapons systems and know well what they are capable of. The same military-grade equipment I used while leading troops during my two combat deployments in Iraq has no place in our community.

A bipartisan group in Congress has started a new push to shut down the Defense Department initiative that transfers military weaponry to local police departments. I fully support this effort. Although President Barack Obama cut back the program in 2015 in response to heavily armed police confronting unarmed protesters in Ferguson, Mo., President Donald Trump reinvigorated it in 2017, providing police departments with equipment such as bayonets, grenade launchers, and even armored vehicles. For me, seeing these vehicles — designed specifically for combat — on the streets of my hometown, where I now hold elected office, has been the most stark wake-up call that something is woefully and fundamentally wrong.

No community is immune to the perils and far-reaching effects of institutional racism, and it falls on all of us — no matter your race, gender, or creed — to not just speak up, but to actively self-reflect and fight against these injustices. Our First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly are foundational freedoms that generations of service members have risked our lives to defend. Eliciting violence and using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protestors, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked, is an assault on our democracy and these freedoms. Using military equipment against our own American citizens will only exacerbate, not heal, our divisions in the fight against injustice.

At every level, we must commit to holding police accountable, defending the rights of peaceful protestors, and ensuring we live up to our promise of justice for all. As Ulster County executive, I have made clear that we have zero tolerance for any form of police brutality in our county, full stop.

In moments like this, we must come together as a community and channel the grief, anger, and frustration we are all feeling to push for needed reforms. That can happen only if we engage with each other as human beings, putting aside the riot masks, automatic weapons, and armored vehicles that serve only to reinforce the fissures between law enforcement and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.

Ending the militarization of our local police forces is just one of the many necessary institutional reforms we must make to heal the fissures between law enforcement and the communities they are meant to serve, but it is one we can and should undertake now. I will not allow my community to turn into a war zone.