Column: The militarization of U.S. police forces

Tue Oct 22, 2013 1:58pm EDT

Attendees look at the Lenco MRAP Bear SWAT Team vehicle at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Attendees look at the Lenco MRAP Bear SWAT Team vehicle at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona March 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

This month, more Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) have found their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. These are just the latest acquisitions in a growing practice by Pentagon that's militarizing America's municipal police forces.

Police departments in Boise and Nampa, Idaho, each acquired an MRAP, as did the force in High Springs, Florida. The offer of war-ready machinery, at practically no cost, has proven hard to resist for local police departments. Increasingly, they are looking like soldiers equipped for battle.

The growing similarity between our domestic police forces and the U.S. military is a result of the Pentagon's 1033 Program. This allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies. In addition to the frightening presence of paramilitary weapons in American towns, the program has led to rampant fraud and abuse.

It does not have to be this way. Congress can, and must, take decisive steps to scale back the program and demilitarize American police forces. Here's how to do it.

First, Congress should permanently ban the transfer of all military-grade equipment to our cities. The program has already transferred enough impractical machinery to local police forces — material that many police departments do not have the skill to use safely or the money to maintain. Georgia's Cobb County, for example, acquired one AR-15 assault rifle for each of its patrol vehicles, while Tupelo, Mississippi received a helicopter that needed $100,000 worth of upgrades and $20,000 each year in maintenance.

Due to the large amount of missing weapons, the Pentagon has now temporarily suspended new weapons shipments to domestic law enforcement agencies. This is a good step. But it is not enough — especially since the ban is expected to be lifted soon.

Meanwhile, city agencies are still free to transfer weapons to other cities and are still free to receive armored personnel carriers and aircraft from the Pentagon. As the new MRAPs patrolling Iowa and Florida now demonstrate, current limitations do nothing to discourage the militarization of local police.

Second, strict oversight must be implemented and consistently enforced if the Pentagon insists on continuing the program. Congress must step up to manage the program by setting new rules and restrictions. Localities not in full compliance must be barred from participation in the program.

Shocking, almost comical, examples of abuse have been well-documented — from the officer who sold his weapons on eBay, to the one who lent his weapons to unauthorized friends and the police departments that lost the military weapons or tried to auction them off.

Now is the time for our policymakers to demand more from the Defense Department. In order to participate, law enforcement agencies should be able to account for 100 percent of the equipment they receive every year. This should be a no-brainer.

If they cannot, they should be removed from the program. If state coordinators do not verify compliance in person, the states should be removed from the program. And if the Defense Department cannot successfully report full compliance to Congress every year, the program should be suspended.

Receiving free equipment is a privilege for law enforcement — a privilege that so far has not come with any responsibility. It is unacceptable for American police to receive such hazardous weapons and equipment without oversight. It is particularly unacceptable for those who have proven to be incompetent, wasteful or irresponsible with the equipment they have received to remain eligible for more free items.

Ultimately, it is Congress's responsibility to protect its constituents' safety and financial interests, which could be threatened by the program mismanagement.

Unless Americans want their towns patrolled by armored military vehicles, their skies humming with drones, and their local police officers equipped with assault weapons, they should encourage Congress to scale the program back promptly.

Taxpayer money should not have to support the costs of maintaining the weapons of war that local police forces have acquired. Citizens deserve to know that their congressional leaders and law enforcement officers are working together to protect them — not recklessly engaging in a gluttonous arms race or irresponsibly losing dangerous weapons.

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Comments (1)
jpferg wrote:
It sounds like you want to start disarming American law enforcement, and that would be a mistake. We unfortunately live in very violent times and there are very bad people out there. If something like the Kenyan Mall tragedy were to happen here, you would see the benefit of law enforcement being well-equipped for increasingly violent events. Having armored vehicles greatly reduces the risk to law enforcement responding to high risk incidents, such as armed barricaded subjects, hostage situations, and high risk search warrants. Gang members and other criminals that are engaged in activities that are likely to bring them into contact with law enforcement are increasingly arming themselves with the same military style weapons you want to take away from the good guys. While I can’t comment as to the decision to obtain the helicopter that required costly repairs, I can say that having a rifle in every patrol vehicle is a very good idea. The average patrol officer in a marked cruiser is going to be the first to respond to a mall shooting, a movie theater shooting, or a school shooting. If there is someone actively shooting people, those first responding officers aren’t going to wait for a SWAT team. They have to act immediately and need like firepower to the perpetrators. If an officer, heaven forbid, has to put an immediate stop to a killing spree in a crowded place, he has a much better chance of hitting the bad guy and not innocent people with a rifle than a handgun. A general comment I can make about helicopters is that they are an extremely valuable asset to law enforcement. They can follow suspects fleeing in vehicles. They can search wooded areas day or night, preventing very dangerous woods searches by officers on the ground. They can provide overwatch of a location, giving updates to units on the ground. They are sometimes able to be utilized by multiple agencies, and can be used to assist fire crews with large fires.

As for your comments on abuses, there is going to be abuse if humans are involved. Law enforcement officers, like all people, are generally good. However, there are going to be boneheads that are either greedy, incompetent, stupid or otherwise, but they do not represent the majority. As far as your comment that this equipment is impractical, that is your opinion and only your opinion. It comes down to perspective. You have the luxury of believing there is no use for these types of things for American law enforcement. Good for you. Rest well knowing there are people out there willing to put their life on the line for you and your family, whether you like them or not, and even if you hate them.

Times are tough for public safety agencies financially. Your concern of cost of maintenance is valid, for those things that require frequent and/or costly maintenance. It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. Is the juice worth the squeeze? Take AR-15 style rifles. They require very little money to maintain, in the form of cleaning supplies.

I would like to know where you got the statistic that many law enforcement agencies don’t have the training to use this equipment. While training budgets and philosophies inevitably vary, I believe law enforcement in general is very well trained. On that note, if you want seasoned, well trained officers in your city, tell your elected officials to pay them appropriately so you can retain that experience.

I’ll end on the fact that armored vehicles are typically deployed in response to high risk incidents, and do not “patrol” the streets like you imply. That includes the MRAP in Florida, which I know for a fact is not patrolling the streets like you ignorantly assumed. Or was that just fear-mongering to ?

Oct 24, 2013 11:22pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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