By Radley Balko

I’ve been covering the militarization of America’s police departments for about eight years now. Over the past 35 years, Congress has generally been interested only in accelerating it. But the tide may be turning. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) has just introduced what may be the first bill aimed at actually reining in the trend.

He explains in an op-ed for USA Today co-written with activist Michael Shank:

  Something potentially sinister is happening across America, and we should stop and take notice before it changes the character of our country forever. County, city and small-town police departments across the country are now acquiring free military-grade weapons that could possibly be used against the very citizens and taxpayers that not only fund their departments but who the police are charged with protecting . . .

    In fact, in the last several months, the following towns around the country, many of them small, have acquired free MRAPs from U.S. war zones: Texas’s McLennan and Dallas Counties; Idaho’s Boise and Nampa; Indiana’s West Lafayette, Merrillville, and Madison; Minnesota’s St. Cloud and Dakota County; New York’s Warren and Jefferson Counties; South Carolina’s North Augusta and Columbia; Tennessee’s Murfreesboro; Arizona’s Yuma; Illinois’s Kankakee County; and Alabama’s Calhoun County.

    Seem like a lot? It is. And that’s only in the last few months. This trend is not only sweeping America’s small cities, it’s hitting American college campuses as well. Ohio State University recently acquired an MRAP. Apparently, college kids are getting too rowdy.

    These are just some of the most egregious examples. There are countless stories of police departments getting (and often later selling) assault weapons, drones, and other military-grade equipment that is absolutely ill-suited for America’s main streets. ThePentagon’s 1033 program, which ”provides or transfers surplus Department of Defense military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies without charge,” is a big part of this disturbing trend . . .

This is why Rep. Johnson plans to introduce legislation to reform the 1033 program before America’s main streets and civilian police militarize further. The program currently lacks serious oversight and accountability, and it needs some parameters put in place to define what is appropriate. The legislation will ban MRAPs, other armored personnel carriers, drones, assault weapons and aircraft. Finally, the legislation will ensure that the Department of Defense undertakes an annual accounting of what’s been transferred, by whom and to whom to prevent military items from being auctioned on eBay or sold to friends.

These Pentagon giveaways have been going on informally since the early days of the Reagan administration. It was formalized with an office and budget in 1994. So there’s a bit of a “slapping a lock on the barn door after the cows are out” effect, there. And there are still other programs, like the grants the Department of Homeland Security hands out to towns and counties across the country to buy yet more military-grade gear.

Still, it’s a start. And it’s the first time in recent memory that someone from Congress has shown enough concern about this trend to introduce a piece of legislation. We’ll also be hearing more on this issue. Later this year, we’ll see reports on police militarization from both the ACLU and the National Tactical Officers Association.

There’s a lot at stake here. Defenders of these programs will say there’s little harm in putting surplus gear to use domestically — particularly when we’re talking about vehicles that don’t have weapons attached to him. But there’s a mindset that can come with using a vehicle designed for use on a battlefield on domestic streets and in domestic neighborhoods. It’s the sort of mindset you seek on display in this essay. It’s one in which police begin to see themselves as soldiers, and the citizens they’re supposed to be serving and protecting not as citizens with rights but as potential combatants.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about how some residents of the small new Hampshire town of Keane were protesting the police department’s attempt to obtain a Bearcat armored personnel carrier through the DHS grant program. One resident and local business owner put it this way:

“We just don’t want to live in the kind of place where there’s an armored personnel carrier parked outside of City Hall. I mean, it’s completely unnecessary. But it’s more than that. It’s just not who we are.”

There are now jurisdictions where every search warrant is served with a SWAT team, regardless of the crime. We’re seeing tiny towns and rural counties acquire gear like M-16s, tanks, helicopters, grenade launchers and land mine-resistant armored vehicles from the Pentagon. Police and SWAT team conferences are now dominated by military imagery, military jargon and vendors plying military wares. We’re seeing this stuff and these tactics used not to apprehend violent fugitives or to thwart terrorists but for increasingly petty crimes, in some cases even to enforce regulatory law.

Perhaps it’s time to pause, take a step back and ask ourselves: Is this who we are?