The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has sparked a long overdue discussion about the militarization of local police. The funds and equipment funneled to police departments to fight the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” have given cops access to military hardware that seems inappropriate for their role in America’s communities. But these “wars” have also changed the attitude of some police departments who seem to regard the populations they are sworn to protect as insurgents who need to be put down. The reform efforts currently on the table don’t go far enough in curtailing equipment transfers and completely fail to address how counter-insurgency tactics have become part of American policing.
Congressional concern over the militarization of police has focused on the Defense Department’s “1033 Program,” which provides surplus military gear – machine guns, grenade launchers, helicopters, and tanks – to state and local police. In 2013 alone, the 1033 Program transferred nearly $450 million worth of military equipment designed for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to civilian police. Lawmakers, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have pledged to review the program while Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are considering new legislation that would impose some limits on the flow of arms from the Pentagon.
But the proposals do not go nearly far enough. The bill, for one, would still allow local police to obtain military gear for counterterrorism purposes, an expansive caveat. Moreover, its narrow focus on the 1033 Program does not address other sources of federal funding and military equipment for local police.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), for example, operates the “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program,” which doled out more than $238 million in 2013 to help police fight drug crimes and terrorism. In New York City, for example, police used the money to purchase surveillance vehicles and computer systems to store reams of innocuous information about law-abiding Muslims. The DOJ also provides assistance to local police through the “Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program,” which, among other things, provides funding for body armor, lethal weapons, helicopters, and even GPS tracking devices. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) runs the “Homeland Security Grant Program,” which last year gave more than $900 million in counterterrorism funds to state and local police. According to a 2012 Senate report, this money has been used to purchase tactical vehicles, drones, and even tanks with little obvious benefit to public safety. It also funds state and local “fusion centers” operating Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) programs, which have not been especially useful in preventing terrorist attacks, but strain community-police relations and raise serious civil liberties concerns.
Overall, in 2013, the DOJ and DHS programs gave nearly $1.5 billion to state and local police departments for military-grade equipment, programs, and personnel — $1 billion more than the Pentagon handed out. Congress would do well to investigate these other funding streams as well while it is reviewing the Defense Department program.
State and local governments can also exercise their oversight authority to ensure that local police forces do not morph into standing armies. In Seattle, for example, the local police obtained two Draganflyer X6 drones using federal grant money from DHS. When the city council learned of the purchase from the media, the public outcry from residents and privacy advocates was so fierce that the mayor ordered the police to get rid of the drones. (Seattle gave them to Los Angeles.) The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance requiring prior legislative approval for any city department intending to acquire surveillance equipment. Local governments should follow the example of Seattle to exercise democratic control over the use of federal funding for police equipment.
It is equally important to find ways to combat the consequences of the war paradigm: the encouragement of a mindset that views residents as potential threats rather than potential partners. This approach is fundamentally at odds with community policing strategies that emphasize building trust and cooperation between the police and the people they serve, which have long been at the center of the DOJ’s stated philosophy. Federal dollars should flow to support – rather than undermine – this goal.
As lawmakers consider issues relating to the use of military equipment by police, they should also examine the erosion of community policing and community trust in many police departments.
To be sure, it is important to protect police officers from harm, and in limited situations, that might mean the use of body armor or a SWAT team. But as a general rule, the focus should be on how the police can protect the people they serve, not the other way around.
Ferguson is not Fallujah and the slow slide from policing to counter-insurgency needs to stop.