Congress Must Demilitarize Our Police Forces If the President Will Not | Commentary

Posted December 5, 2014 at 4:20pm

Two police officers in two weeks have escaped indictment for the death of two unarmed black men. News broke on Dec. 3 that Officer Daniel Pantaleo of New York, like Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Mo., will not face trial for a death caused by his actions. Perhaps coincidentally, this news comes closely on the heels of the Obama administration’s reveal of its plan to address police militarization. The verdict is now in for the president’s plan — it is nowhere near good enough.

There are many things the president’s plan gets right. After tactical vehicles and riot gear turned Ferguson into a war zone over the summer, the Obama administration wisely launched a review of the federal programs that provide military weapons and funding to police. This plan is the result of that review, and correctly points out the lack of transparency in the federal programs. It also emphasizes the need for a community-based policing model and a change in the fundamental relationships between law enforcement and the community. But there are three essential items missing from the administration’s plan.

First, it fails to address the most obvious question of all — should military-style weapons be used in law enforcement? The answer should be a resounding no. It is unnecessary and inappropriate for small-town police to have a giant Mine- Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or for a school district to have grenade launchers. Military and law enforcement are separate institutions with separate mandates; one is designed to destroy an enemy, the other to protect a community. They should not be equipped with the same weaponry and tactics.

Yet the Department of Defense’s 1033 program has transferred more than $5 billion worth of surplus military gear to local police for free, and the DHS has handed out more than $40 billion in grant money to enable police to purchase tanks, drones and assault weapons. Defense contractors have been quick to capitalize upon this new market, directly hawking the latest in war technology to grant-funded police departments. This over-supply of military gear has produced a soldier mentality in police. Overly aggressive policing is dangerous both to the peace of the community and the safety of police officers. This relationship makes law enforcement less effective, and perpetuates a cycle of tension counterproductive to the community’s security. The administration’s review was an unprecedented opportunity for President Barack Obama to speak out against the distribution of military weapons to police, and he failed by not taking that opportunity.

The second piece missing from the administration’s recommendation is a plan to combat the rampant waste, fraud and abuse of these federal programs. From an official who illegally sold the free weapons he received on eBay, to the county that planned to auction off its stash to pad its budget, stories of the program’s abuse border on the absurd. Reining in this abuse is crucial to any serious efforts to reform these programs, and the Obama administration’s failure to highlight this mismanagement was an egregious omission.

Lastly, the administration declined to endorse or suggest a legislative fix. It is a mistake for the administration to attempt to solve this issue purely from the executive branch, as any changes can be quickly overturned by subsequent administrations when the winds of political pressure blow in the other direction. Real, permanent and substantive changes to the law must come from Congress.

This omission is particularly puzzling, as a bipartisan bill currently exists that would incorporate many of the administration’s recommendations if passed into law. The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, and has picked up 45 co-sponsors and counting. The bill would stop the free transfer of the most troubling military-grade items, such as tactical vehicles and grenades. It would also strengthen accountability and eligibility requirements and create necessary transparency. The momentum behind this common-sense, bipartisan reform could have been greatly enhanced and accelerated by the support of the president.

By focusing on the administration of the programs rather than their substance, the president’s plan falls far short of the changes necessary for real reform. The militarization of police is a complex problem, but the necessary first change is to shut off the easy availability of military gear. Now that we know the president will not call for these changes, it has become more urgent than ever for Congress to act swiftly to demilitarize the police.

Elizabeth R. Beavers is a legislative associate at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.