By Matt Hisrich
When did our local police departments start looking like an invasion force? The question arises after seeing the war-like scenes emerging out of the chaos in Ferguson, Mo. The answer, it seems, is that the transition has been no accident. It is instead the direct result of federal policy and agreeable officials in local government. Wayne County is no exception.
As Taylor Wofford wrote recently in Newsweek, “Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to ‘transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is — (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.’ It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.”
The purchase of military goods by local law enforcement officials has, not surprisingly, led to the increasing militarization of the local police. The New York Times reports that “Since President Obama took office, the Pentagon has transferred to police departments tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”
The Times submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Pentagon and received back a complete listing of all transfers made to local agencies, and has since made this database available online (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/upshot/data-on-transfer-of-military-gear-to-police-departments.html). A review of the records indicates that since 2006 state or local law enforcement agencies located in Wayne County have spent a total of $456,469.42 to obtain the following: 37, 5.56 millimeter rifles (M16 style assault rifles); 13, 7.62 millimeter rifles (M14 style sniper rifles); 2, .45 caliber automatic pistols; 5, M998 or M998A1 Humvee utility trucks; 1 full-tracked M113A2 armored personnel carrier (or tank); and 1 trailer-mounted diesel engine generator set.
Other counties have certainly purchased more exotic items, but concerned citizens in Wayne County should have more information about the nature and intended use of these items for state and local law enforcement. It is also reasonable to ask the question of whether continued participation in this federal program is in the best interest of our community.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., is one of those in Congress asking just that question at the national level. He plans to introduce the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.” As he wrote in an op-ed with Michael Shank in USA Today, “Americans should therefore be concerned, unless they want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone.”
Wayne County residents have reason to be concerned. We deserve honest answers from local officials about exactly what measures are in place to check the excesses this program seems to invite.
Matt Hisrich is a Richmond resident and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review (http://inpolicy.org/). He can be reached at email@example.com.