Stop Treating America Like a War Zone

Stop Treating America Like a War Zone

US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 08/22/14
By Michael Shank and US Rep Hank Johnson

America is finally waking up to the militarization of its police forces. This is a good thing and heralds a tipping point in the changing face of policing in the United States. America must realize that what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri – with the overwhelming militarized response of local police forces to the protests over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager – is also bound to happen in other American cities. With outrage mounting over the crackdown in Ferguson, now is the time to act.

Ferguson is not alone in having a militarized police force. There are countless stories of police departments getting (and later selling) assault weapons, drones and other military-grade equipment that is absolutely ill-suited for America’s main streets. The Columbia Police Department in South Carolina, for example, received a free Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle, known as an 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). Columbia’s interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, justified the acquisition by saying that the vehicle “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.”

Columbia and towns like it are quickly redefining what a rational response to a security threat looks like. But Columbia is not alone. The Roanoke Rapids Police Department in North Carolina also acquired Humvees and MRAP vehicles, proudly displaying them at a car show. Roanoke Rapids got them free from the Pentagon, as did towns across America, many of them small: Texas’s McLennan and Dallas counties; Idaho’s Boise and Nampa; Indiana’s West Lafayette, Merrillville and Madison; Minnesota’s St. Cloud and Dakota; 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.

This trend is not only sweeping America’s small cities, it’s hitting American college campuses as well, with Ohio State University acquiring an MRAP. 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.

Unless Americans want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone, we all should be concerned. We recognize that we’re not in Kansas anymore, but are vehicles meant for fighting wars 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 about 16,000 people? No.

The primary reasons there is surplus equipment is that we’re drawing down from two major equipment-laden wars, 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. Passing off still-good equipment to America’s municipal police forces allows the defense industry to ask for more funding for new equipment. It’s like donating a relatively new sweater to Goodwill, allowing the purchase of a new, yet unnecessary, sweater from Macy’s.

In an effort to fix this problem, Rep. Hank Johnson is introducing legislation in September, after Congress returns from recess, 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. 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.

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 the Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America. We must do it now, before Kankakee looks like Kabul or Boise looks like Baghdad.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, is a member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees.