By Michael Shank and US Congressman Hank Johnson
America’s streets are looking increasingly like countries we dismiss as petty dictatorships and rogue states. Mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles and Humvees are now patrolling cities all across America. We saw it at Standing Rock. We saw it in Ferguson. We saw it in Seattle years ago and now we’re seeing it in every major American city that’s protesting police violence.
As President Donald Trump pushes for more military equipment to be rolled out to confront protesters, we need to do everything in our power to stop this before it changes the character of our country forever. The Justice in Policing Act introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate this week covers a range of important policy proposals to increase accountability, transparency and training. It also includes vital reforms to stop the government’s militarization of police forces.
For years, county, city and small-town police departments have been stockpiling free military-grade weapons—as part of a Defense Department giveaway—to use against the very citizens and taxpayers who not only fund their departments but who the police are supposed to protect.
The Pentagon’s 1033 program, as it is known, which provides or transfers surplus Department of Defense military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies without charge, is a major part of this troubling trend.
Much of the military equipment and weaponry returned to the U.S., after deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, is either unused or undamaged and has been declared “surplus,” thus making it eligible for distribution to domestic law enforcement agencies under the Pentagon’s program.
Police are also receiving military-grade equipment through the Department of Homeland Security’s “terrorism grants” and the U.S. Coast Guard’s excess personal property program (an offshoot of the DHS program). Now, the Pentagon and DHS programs have resulted in the transfer of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies and thereby to the streets of America. And while the Obama administration limited the transfer of certain military-grade weapons to local law enforcement via executive action, the Trump administration rolled back those restrictions.
There are countless stories of police departments getting—and often later selling—assault weapons, drones and other military-grade equipment that are inappropriate and dangerous to have on the streets. Stipulations that this weaponry be used within a year of acquisition are making the situation even more combustible.
Americans of every stripe should be concerned, unless they want their streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone. Militarizing America won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent. And before another 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, which is why the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which Representative Hank Johnson reintroduced again this Congress, is so critical.
But even if we end the Pentagon program and demilitarize the police, that won’t address what happened to George Floyd or Eric Garner or Michael Brown. A wholesale review of racist policies and approaches to law enforcement is also desperately needed. Something that will necessitate drastic reforms in departments so they can better represent, integrate, problem solve and liaise with the communities they are serving.
Our police departments must better reflect the demographics of our increasingly diverse nation, whether it be race, creed, sexual orientation or otherwise. America is changing fast, but police departments aren’t keeping up. The fact that in three-quarters of all U.S. cities with populations 50,000 or more, the police presence is still disproportionately white relative to the local population is unacceptable and must be addressed immediately.
Communities of color are particularly at risk, when historic factors such as lack of diversity or sensitivity within certain police departments are combined with certain agencies’ patterned and practiced use of excessive force.
Training and recruitment of minorities is also critical, yet far more needs to be taking place. With this in mind, amplifying community policing models that work and scaling them up immediately is essential if we are to stem the growing and sometimes overwhelming tide of frustration, anger and cynicism welling up among young African, Asian and Hispanic Americans.
With the Trump administration’s apparent callous indifference to the community policing concept, as evidenced by its use of the highly charged “law and order” language, it is time we move away from the warrior cop mentality. A de-escalation of tensions and conflict is only possible with the non-proliferation and removal of military-grade weaponry from the hands of frequently untrained law enforcement officers.
Bridging the growing chasm between law enforcement and the people they are charged with protecting and serving is going to be a herculean effort. And it will happen only if the police look like the people they are serving in every way. Demographics, training and demilitarization. Start there.
Congressman Hank Johnson is a U.S. representative of Georgia’s 4th Congressional District, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and Secretary of the Congressional Black Caucus. He is the author of the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. Dr. Michael Shank is adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.