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Why Experts Say The Police Don't Need Militias' Help


Kenosha, Wis., was more peaceful last night, following three nights of sometimes violent anti-police protests, including the Tuesday night shooting of three people, two of whom were killed. A 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse has been arrested in connection with those shootings. He appears to have been a part of a self-styled militia roaming the streets of Kenosha that night. His arrest has highlighted worries about the presence of armed civilians at Black Lives Matter protests. NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When protests turned into rioting in Kenosha, local law enforcement was overwhelmed. But at a press conference yesterday, the sheriff, David Beth, says that did not mean he was looking for volunteers.


DAVID BETH: I had a person call me and say, why don't you deputize citizens who have guns to come out and patrol the city of Kenosha? And I'm like, oh, hell no.

KASTE: He said the shootings on Tuesday night demonstrated why he doesn't need civilians acting as his deputies. There is some video evidence that Kyle Rittenhouse may have been defending himself when he pulled the trigger, but the sheriff says the bigger problem is that the armed groups create confrontations. That's certainly what Tavion Williams thinks. He was there on Tuesday night, watching as the armed men purposely walked through crowds of protesters.

TAVION WILLIAMS: You know, to agitated person - they knew what they was doing. They knew the reaction they would get, and they got what they wanted.

KASTE: He thinks the militia were there just to intimidate people. Nick Suplina agrees. He's with Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, and he says this is part of a bigger culture shift.

NICK SUPLINA: It's not so much a particular change in law as a understanding in the country that, you know, if you want to be heard, you bring your AR-15 to the protest. And we think that the choice to bring an assault weapon to a protest is meant to chill First Amendment speech, not protect it or property or anything else.

KASTE: But others say that ignores just how much serious harm has come out of recent protests, including assaults, arson and the destruction of small businesses. Eugene Volokh is a libertarian-leaning legal scholar at UCLA, and he says if Americans want less policing, they should probably expect more armed civilians.

EUGENE VOLOKH: The historical argument for gun control has always been, oh, you don't need guns to protect yourself; the police will protect you. But if we're going to have less policing, whether in general or in these kinds of situations, then in that case, who is going to protect you, if not you and your neighbors and your friends?

KASTE: It's an attitude shared even by some who support Black Lives Matter. In the CHOP protest zone in Seattle in June, they had at least one volunteer who did security patrol with a long gun. And the simple fact is, in most states, the law now allows this. Former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas says over the course of his career, the move toward looser gun laws has meant that police have had to learn to co-exist with armed civilians, even in tense settings.

RONAL SERPAS: But if the statutes allow for people to have them and they don't violate the statute in any other way, then the police just have to be observational about the weapons present.

KASTE: Still, there are some who believe the police could do more to discourage the people who want to play cop. They point to the cellphone video from Tuesday night in Kenosha. It's before the shootings. As the armed men walked down the street, law enforcement officers rolled by in an armored vehicle, hand out some water, and then they have this friendly exchange.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: We appreciate you guys. We really do.


KASTE: Nick Suplina from Everytown for Gun Safety says that just sends the wrong message.

SUPLINA: One thing law enforcement should do when they encounter armed militia is subject them to the same rules that they are enforcing against protesters. If there's a curfew and nobody is to be out, that goes for the armed men as well.

KASTE: And Suplina says we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that these protests are about the police misusing their firearms. And he says if untrained civilians try to take the law into their own hands, it'll be even worse.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.