Should local police be outfitted for war?
Fueled by events in Missouri, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and the past, the nation has seen rising concern over the “militarization” of hometown police agencies.
Among those covering that angle on the Missouri story were Politico, U.S. News and World Report, New York Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, USA Today, Capitol Hill Blue, BuzzFeed, BillMoyers.com, Mother Jones, Raw Story, CBS, ABC, Al Jazeera, Fresno Bee, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, and even Vanity Fair.
One former servicemember who said he served in Iraq, Brandon Friedman, posted a tweet that showed two photos—one of a police officer outfitted like a Ninja Turtle, the other of himself in the war zone wearing his military gear. “The gentleman on the left has more personal body armor and weaponry than I did while invading Iraq,” Friedman pointed out.
The story was pushed to a new level when U.S. senator and undeclared presidential candidate Rand Paul penned an essay for Time magazine: “When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.”
Clearly, it was an approach to the Missouri story that took on a life of its own. The principal specific remedy proposed, however, has not been action to do something about any alleged military culture in police agencies but rather cancellation of a Defense Department program that has turned over billions of dollars in surplus military hardware—M16 assault rifles, grenade launchers, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles—to state and local agencies.
Georgia Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson said he would introduce a “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” that would reduce or end—the language of the measure is not yet available—the Pentagon program.
“Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson said in a letter to other congressmembers. “Our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces. This bill will end the free transfers of certain aggressive military equipment to local law enforcement and ensure that all equipment can be accounted for.”
As it happened, however, while concern about police agencies was being expressed, some police officials said they agreed.
“What I would say is that not every sheriff’s office or police department around the country is similarly prepped,” said Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley. “I am not a proponent for militarizing our police agencies beyond what their missions are. We are citizen soldiers, not armies of occupation.”
He said he would limit the use of heavy armament and military tactics to “SWAT [special weapons and tactics] situations where we know the suspect is armed, we have concerns for the safety of our employees, and we know we have to protect them.”Drug war
Sen. Paul identified the spread of military practices in police work with the drug war, but while that certainly fueled the problem, SWAT-style approaches to police work date back to the 1960s, when police developed them during the civil rights and antiwar movements that sometimes saw civil disorders and rioting—by police themselves, in one instance. SWAT gear or tactics were used in situations involving California farm workers and members of the Black Panther organization.
The “war on drugs” that was launched in the Nixon administration and renewed regularly in later administrations also caused a step-up in military practices in police departments.
And just as Hollywood came up with programs like 24 after the September 11 tragedies, in the 1970s, an ABC television program called S.W.A.T. used throbbing music and action sequences to spread the notion that military tactics by police were desirable.
September 11 helped accelerate military uses of local police, and not just through the Pentagon program. Department of Homeland Security grants of money to localities helped localities stock up on gear whose usefulness to them was far from certain, as when Colchester, Vermont, population 16,000, used Homeland Security money to buy equipment for punching holes in collapsed skyscrapers.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, speaking with Nevada reporters on Aug. 18, said military-style gear can be useful in incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing.
“So the question I have is not whether the equipment is needed—it probably is,” Reid said. “How the equipment and supplies are being used is the problem.”
He said the feds need to be sure localities “have the ability and resources to train the people who use it” when the equipment is transferred.
Haley worries that military practices by local police agencies puts another obstacle between members of the public and police agencies who, often, are already too distant from the public.
“Again, as a citizen soldier, I think our job is to communicate with the public,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of our work does not require heavy armament.”