NEWSWEEK 03/17/17
By Michael Shank and U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson

As thousands of Native Americans protested across the country this weekend, led in part by the Standing Rock Sioux, taking the protest to the White House and to Trump Tower, it’s important to remember that Standing Rock was recently a war zone.

Pictures of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the heavily militarized police response attest to the war equipment, military tactics and weaponry that were deployed against Americans.

North Dakota and Wisconsin State police forces, which have been the most aggressive in using military equipment to enforce domestic laws, are looking more and more like our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is the new normal. We saw it at Standing Rock. We saw it in Seattle. We saw it in Ferguson, and we’ll see more military equipment being used to confront peaceful protesters across the nation.

At Standing Rock, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (or MRAPs), and assault weapons were used against Native American tribes and sympathizers protesting the construction of a fossil fuel pipeline that would put the local water supply at risk.

As the American Civil Liberties Union has documented, North Dakota’s police force was not alone in its use of military equipment. As we’ve drawn down from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the military equipment and weaponry being returned to the U.S. is either unused or undamaged and has been declared surplus, thus making it eligible for distribution to domestic law enforcement agencies under the Pentagon’s 1033 program.

Civilian law enforcement agencies across America are receiving military-grade equipment through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, the Department of Homeland Security’s “terrorism grants,” or through the U.S. Coast Guard’s excess personal property program (an offshoot of the DHS program).

Both the Pentagon and Homeland Security programs have resulted in the transfer of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies and to the streets of America.

While the Obama administration limited the transfer of certain military-grade weapons to local law enforcement via executive action, the Trump administration is expected to roll back those restrictions. MRAPs continue to be acquired in states such as Texas, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee and Illinois.

Alarmingly, militarization is hitting American college campuses and high schools. Surplus military equipment was awarded to college police departments at Florida International University, Ohio State University and Florida State University. The surplus equipment included M-14 and M-16 assault rifles, body armor and a variety of armored vehicles including MRAPs and Humvees.

Several Los Angeles schools participated in a multistate program to integrate surplus military equipment into local school district police forces. The San Diego Unified School District also acquired an MRAP, to the public consternation of parents, who voiced concern about their children being exposed to the use of military grade weaponry, including armored vehicles and semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifles, while at school.

This militarization of American domestic law enforcement is quickly redefining how police agencies protect and serve civil society. Observe two police chiefs’ explanations as to why they think military weaponry is necessary in America.

After the Roanoke Rapids Police Department in North Carolina acquired Humvees and MRAPs from the Pentagon, Police Chief Tommy Hathaway said “its intended purpose is to prevent mass casualties and to extricate people.” When South Carolina’s Columbia Police Department received a free MRAP from the Pentagon, which would have cost them nearly $700,000, Police Chief Ruben Santiago said the MRAP “will be a barrier between the public and a hostile person or situation such as a barricaded suspect with weapons who may be threatening someone’s life.”

The indiscriminate use of military equipment in domestic settings can often lead to escalation, rather than de-escalation of tensions and conflict. This reality is further exacerbated by the 1033 program’s requirement that the surplus military equipment must be placed into use within a year of acquisition, which actually encourages the misuse of the equipment, often at the hand of police officers untrained in its proper use.

The proliferation of military-grade weaponry into the hands of frequently untrained law enforcement officers, with a mandate that the equipment be used within a year, can be an explosive combination. Communities of color are particularly at risk, when historic factors such as lack of diversity or sensitivity within certain police departments is combined with certain agencies’ patterned and practiced use of excessive force.

Rather than militarizing America’s police forces, greater efforts are needed to help bridge the growing chasm between law enforcement and the people they are charged with protecting and serving. Resources to implement community policing policies are what is needed. Sadly, the Trump Administration’s FY2018 budget blueprint calls for the complete elimination of the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Before more main streets in America become war zones, a wholesale review of the creeping militarization of law enforcement is needed. The bipartisan legislation reintroduced this week, titled Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (SMLEA), or H.R. 1556 would close the pipeline that enables law enforcement agencies to acquire certain surplus military equipment directly from the Pentagon while bypassing the civilian governmental authority.

With the Trump administration’s apparent callous indifference to the community policing concept, as evidenced by its use of the highly charged “law and order” language, it is clear that the time has come to pass the SMLEA. It is time we move away from the warrior cop mentality, as former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who oversaw a militarized response to protests in 1999, has recommended.

A flood of unneeded military equipment to our streets—in the hands of officers who are untrained in when and how to use it—erodes the “protect and serve” mindset of police officers, replacing it with the military mindset, thus undermining public trust, evincing fear and creating conditions that make citizens feel less safe.

Hank Johnson, who introduced SMLEA in the 115th, 114th and 113th Congresses, represents Georgia’s 4th Congressional District and is a member of the Judiciary Committee and Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Michael Shank teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.