NEW YORK TIMES 08/15/14
By Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers
WASHINGTON — FERGUSON, Mo., has become a virtual war zone. In the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, outsize armored vehicles have lined streets and tear gas has filled the air. Officers dressed in camouflage uniforms from Ferguson’s 53-person police force have pointed M-16s at the very citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.
The police response has shocked America. The escalating tension in this town of 21,200 people between a largely white police department and a majority African-American community is a central part of the crisis, but the militarization of the police is a dimension of the story that has national implications.
Ferguson’s police force got equipped this way thanks to the Pentagon, and it’s happening all over the country. The Department of Defense provides military-grade weapons and equipment to local law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program, enacted by Congress in 1997 to expand the practice of dispensing extra military gear. Due to the defense industry’s bloated contracts, there is a huge surplus. To date, the Pentagon has donated military equipment worth more than $4 billion to local law enforcement agencies. And the giving goes on, to police forces in all 50 states in the union.
Ferguson’s police department is just one recipient; small towns all over America are now the proud owners of “MRAP” armored vehicles. The largess has gotten so out of hand that a congressman, Hank C. Johnson, is introducing a bill to block the 1033 handouts.
Whereas the Department of Defense hands over weapons directly, the Department of Homeland Security provides funding for arms. It has distributed more than $34 billion through “terrorism grants,” enabling local police departments to acquire such absurd items as a surveillance drone and an Army tank.
For a police department like Ferguson’s, the path to becoming a paramilitary force is a short one. After loading up with free military gear, it is no surprise that law enforcement agents want to use it. In fact, the 1033 program’s regulations require that the police use what they receive within one year.
In the absence of extreme violence or actual terrorist threat, what happens — as the American Civil Liberties Union has documented — is that the equipment and weapons are used by SWAT teams in routine situations, such as low-level drug raids or the execution of search warrants. As Ferguson shows, this militarizing of routine police work exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of disorder. This, in turn, appears to justify a militarized police response, and so the cycle continues.
The federal government can stop this increased militarization at its source. The Pentagon must end its transfer of military-grade weapons through the 1033 program. And the Department of Homeland Security should stop handing out the terrorism grants. The ease with which police departments can avail themselves of Homeland Security funding for enormous caches of weapons and ammunition in the name of counterterrorism is deeply disconcerting.
Veteran police chiefs who have served on the front lines of America’s biggest police forces are voicing their concern. Norman H. Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle, has written with regret about the military-style tactics employed during the protests against the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle; he now advocates “an authentic partnership in policing the city,” involving rank-and-file officers, civilian employees and community representatives.
Militarizing our police officers does not have to be the first response to violence. Alternatives are available. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s statement Thursday highlighting resources like the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services office is welcome. This is where the government should be investing — instead of grants for guns.
Police militarization is a growing national threat. If the federal government doesn’t act to stop it, the future of law enforcement everywhere will look a lot like Ferguson.
Elizabeth R. Beavers is the legislative associate for militarism and civil liberties, and Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs, at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.