USA TODAY 03/10/14
By Michael Shank and US Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA)

Why do police departments need military vehicles and weapons?

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.

Recently in a small, sleepy North Carolina town of roughly 16,000 people, the Roanoke Rapids Police Department acquired some Humvees and Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (or MRAPs), which it proudly displayed at a recent car show. Roanoke Rapids got them free from the Pentagon, returned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The town’s police chief, Tommy Hathaway, noted, perhaps unintentionally, the misuse of this equipment on America’s main streets, saying that “its intended purpose is to prevent mass casualties and to extricate people,” but that hopefully Roanoke Rapids will never need it.

Next door, in South Carolina, the Columbia Police Department also received a free MRAP from the Pentagon, which otherwise would have cost Columbia nearly $700,000 (though the city is responsible for all repairs and upkeep going forward). Their interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, justified the acquisition saying that 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.” We are quickly redefining what a rational response to a security threat looks like.

How many other Columbia’s are out there?

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. The Pentagon’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.

Why is there surplus, especially when the Defense Department is threatening to cut jobs anytime Congress talks about defense cuts as part of sequestration or the Budget Control Act? The primary reasons is that we’re drawing down from two major equipment-laden wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while some of this equipment is being destroyed in the war zone, at a loss of billions in American taxpayer dollars, much of it is now being returned to the U.S. Additionally, by passing off still-good equipment to America’s municipal police forces, it allows the defense industry to ask for more funding for more equipment. It’s like donating a relatively new sweater to Goodwill, allowing the purchase of a new, yet unnecessary, sweater from Macy’s.

Americans should therefore be concerned, unless they want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone. We recognized that we’re not in Kansas anymore, but are MRAPs really needed in small-town America? Are improvised explosive devices, grenade attacks, mines, shelling and other war-typical attacks really happening in Roanoke Rapids, a town of 16,000 people? No.

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.

Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent. Before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America. And do it now before Kankakee looks like Kabul or Boise looks like Baghdad.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, is a member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees. Michael Shank is the associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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