Congress: Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement | Commentary
In the past month, Reps. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act in the House, accompanied by Sen. Tom Coburn’s, R-Okla., version in the Senate. This swift, bipartisan action is just in time, because the American police officer appears to have transformed into a soldier.
This transformation is problematic and hinders true security. A militarized police force operates as if the community it serves is the enemy, breeding fear and mistrust of the police. This tension fuels chaotic interactions with the community and forceful responses from the police, making policing less effective and furthering the cycle of militarization — as evidenced by the events in Ferguson, Mo.
Much of this militarization stems from troublesome federal policies. Here’s how it all began.
The first responsible federal program is the 1033 program, which allows the Department of Defense to transfer military-grade weapons, equipment, aircraft and tactical vehicles to local American police units for free. When the Pentagon has a surplus of military equipment — and there is always a surplus, due in part to large defense manufacturing contracts — the surplus is made available to local law enforcement agencies at no cost.
Excess M-16s, helicopters, even giant Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) can be seen not only on the battlefields of Afghanistan, but also on the streets of small town America. Since the program’s inception in 1996, the Pentagon has donated more than $5 billion worth of equipment and weapons to municipal law enforcement agencies.
In addition to directly distributing weapons to the police through the 1033 program, the Department of Homeland Security provides cash to police officers across the country — to the tune of more than $34 billion. This money is meant to combat the threat of terror and expressly allows police to purchase equipment which was once designed only for the battlefield.
Effects of this cash flow often border on the absurd. Fargo, N.D., one of the safest areas in the United States, received $8 million through these grants, used to purchase an armored truck with a rotating turret, bomb-detecting robots and many other items. The sheriff’s department in Montgomery County, Texas, used the funds to become the first local police agency to deploy a drone capable of carrying weapons.
With free equipment in plentiful supply, Special Weapons and Tactics teams have sprung up across the country, one of the most obvious examples of these programs directly militarizing police work. As investigative reporter Radley Balko points out, once you have a SWAT team you want to use it, which is clear from the nearly 150 SWAT raids that happen every day in the United States. Once formed and armed, the SWAT teams are often utilized not for crises or emergencies, but for routine police work such as low-level drug raids.
Even federal administrative agencies are employing SWAT-like special agents to conduct their law enforcement operations. The most shocking example occurred in 2011, when federal agents resembling SWAT officers forcefully executed a search warrant on a man’s home. The man was roughly detained, along with his three young children, for many hours. Imagine the man’s surprise upon learning that the agents were from the Department of Education.
When the Department of Education has a SWAT team, a small-town sheriff operates a drone and a college campus has an MRAP, it is time to re-examine what exactly it means to protect and serve. To be sure, police officers require certain vital safety equipment, and circumstances do arise in the course of law enforcement that demand enhanced security measures. But policies which conflate law enforcement with military might threaten individual civil liberties and the true security of communities.
Effective law enforcement requires that the police serve as an integral part of their communities, instead of furthering a militant “us versus them” mentality through their appearance and behavior. Police officers cannot credibly forge relationships with their communities when they operate as a paramilitary unit. Serving and connecting with a community is more important, and more effective, than adhering to a bureaucratic military model.
Restructuring the militarized police will take political will. Members of Congress should support legislation reforming these programs, and constituents must encourage their elected officials to act. It is not acceptable to maintain the status quo. The police are not at war, and Americans are not the enemy.
Norm Stamper is the former chief of Seattle Police Department and author of “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing.” Elizabeth R. Beavers is the legislative associate on Militarism and Civil Liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.