Stop Pentagon program that militarizes U.S. police forces

WASHINGTON —

There is a growing bipartisan public outrage about the local police force’s fiercely militarized response to protestors in Ferguson, Missouri.

From Democrats to Republicans, progressive to libertarian, citizens across the political spectrum are denouncing the efforts to stop demonstrations over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American teenager.

Legislators are also speaking out against this militarization of police. Representative Justin Amash (R-Mich.) described the situation as “frightening.” Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) a moderate, called the police tactics “the problem instead of the solution.”  Meanwhile, libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated flatly in an op-ed, “We must de-militarize the police.”

Americans have been stunned to see pictures of police driving armored vehicles through neighborhoods, brandishing weapons of war at unarmed citizens.

But this is nothing new. In October 2013, Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) were regularly finding their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. They were the latest acquisitions in a growing Pentagon practice that’s militarizing America’s municipal police forces.

In that one month, police departments in Boise and Nampa, Idaho, each acquired an MRAP, as did the force in High Springs, Florida. The offer of war-ready machinery, at practically no cost, has proven hard to resist for local police departments. They look increasingly like soldiers equipped for battle.

The growing similarity between our domestic police forces and the U.S. military is a result of the Pentagon’s 1033 Program. This allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies. In addition to the frightening presence of paramilitary weapons in American towns, the program has led to rampant fraud and abuse.

It does not have to be this way. Congress can, and must, take decisive steps to scale back the program and demilitarize American police forces. Here’s how to do it.

First, Congress should permanently ban the transfer of all military-grade equipment to our cities. The program has already transferred enough impractical machinery to local police forces
- material that many police departments do not have the skill to use safely or the money to maintain. Georgia’s Cobb County, for example, acquired one AR-15 assault rifle for each of its patrol vehicles, while Tupelo, Mississippi, received a helicopter that needed $100,000 worth of upgrades and $20,000 each year in maintenance.

Second, strict oversight must be implemented and consistently enforced if the Pentagon insists on continuing the program. Congress must step up to manage the program by setting new rules and restrictions. Localities not in full compliance must be barred from participation in the program.

Shocking, almost comical, examples of abuse have been well-documented - from the officer who sold his weapons on eBay, to the one who lent his weapons to unauthorized friends and the police departments that lost the military weapons or tried to auction them off.

Now is the time for our policymakers to demand more from the Defense Department. In order to participate, law enforcement agencies should be able to account for 100 percent of the equipment they receive every year. This should be a no-brainer.

If they cannot, they should be removed from the program. If state coordinators do not verify compliance in person, the states should be removed from the program. And if the Defense Department cannot successfully report full compliance to Congress every year, the program should be suspended.

It is unacceptable for U.S. police to receive such hazardous weapons and equipment without oversight. It is particularly unacceptable for those who have proven to be incompetent, wasteful or irresponsible with the equipment they have received to remain eligible for more free items.

Ultimately, it is Congress’s responsibility to protect its constituents’ safety and financial interests, which could be threatened by the program mismanagement.

Unless Americans want their towns patrolled by armored military vehicles, their skies humming with drones, and their local police officers equipped with assault weapons, they should encourage Congress to scale the program back promptly.

Taxpayer money should not have to support the costs of maintaining the weapons of war that local police forces have acquired. Citizens deserve to know that their congressional leaders and law enforcement officers are working together to protect them—not recklessly engaging in a gluttonous arms race or irresponsibly losing dangerous weapons.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014.

Author Infomation

Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers
Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers
Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Elizabeth Beavers is the program assistant for foreign policy at the committee.
  • -1

    BertieWooster

    The USA is rapidly becoming a police state.

    The Communist World was said to be the "enemy of freedom and democracy," now it's the USA.

  • 10

    zichi

    I have been shocked at the photos of cops carrying military grade weapons and driving around in military type vehicles and pointing those assault weapons directly at pretestors and demonstrators certainly does nothing to help calm the situation. America just what are you thinking of? Reminds me of the Kent Uni students shot dead for demonstrating over the Vietnam war. Very heavy handed tactics. Some of the people are out of control with looting but so are the cops with their battlefield uniforms and weapons. The cops are still looking for a fight and the smallest event could set them off.

  • 2

    Strangerland

    I have been shocked at the photos of cops carrying military grade weapons and driving around in military type vehicles

    Me too. It's what you expect to see in pictures of a police state with no rights for the people. Which, as Bertie says above, is what the US is quickly becoming (only 13 years since 9-11).

  • 0

    FizzBit

    A little too late for that. This has been going on for over 15 years. I remember when my city acquired a SWAT team, at least 15 years ago. I didn't think we needed it. All part of the MIC/DOD money machine, with a lot of military servicemen going directly into the force after getting out.

    That SWAT TV show from 1975-76 was a real booster. Thanks Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg! Who've made lots of cash making (bad) cop show after cop show.

  • 0

    Bartholomew Harte

    One would expect these types of equipment in big cities like N.Y. but when this type of equipment finds it's way to Mayberry,U.S.A. i'm afraid to think of what comes next & having a congress unwilling to work across party lines on this as well as so many other matters pisses me off to no end!

  • 0

    Jerome_from_Utah

    SWAT teams started in the Los Angeles area after regular police found themselves out gunned by criminals. It didn't take long for the Number One target to be people engaged in the drug trade. Thanks to the War On Drugs, lots of police departments, Sheriff's Offices, and others want the firepower. This is the Demand-Pull side of the equation. That Pentagon 1033 Program simply provides the Supply Push side. This is from Econ 101.

    To quiet the "Battle Rattle", both side of the equation need to be addressed.

  • -2

    lostrune2

    This is standard in many big countries. Try this in Brazil or Russia, etc. they'd get the same thing.

  • -4

    Frungy

    Legislators are also speaking out against this militarization of police.

    ... so they've only woken up to this now? Wow, American are SLOW on the uptake.

    JeromefromUtahAug. 18, 2014 - 02:44PM JST SWAT teams started in the Los Angeles area after regular police found themselves out gunned by criminals. It didn't take long for the Number One target to be people engaged in the drug trade. Thanks to the War On Drugs, lots of police departments, Sheriff's Offices, and others want the firepower. This is the Demand-Pull side of the equation. That Pentagon 1033 Program simply provides the Supply Push side. This is from Econ 101.

    This has to be the most strange argument I've ever seen. You do know what happens when you fire a burst from an assault rifle don't you? At most one or two rounds hit the target at moderate range.... and the rest go flying off to... well, heaven's knows where. On a battlefield this is kindof okay, generally the enemy is on one side and you're on the other and people know to keep out of crossfire and away from stray rounds, although there's a lot more "friendly fire" than anyone wants.

    ... but in a heavily populated city? Those stray rounds are virtually guaranteed to hit SOMEONE and it almost certainly won't be a criminal.

    Using military grade hardware in a populated urban setting is pretty much the definition of STUPID.

  • 0

    Novenachama

    Unfortunately the fact is the police force is harming civil liberties, impacting children and transforming neighborhood into war zones.

  • 0

    StormR

    Been coming for along time, surprised its taken them this long for them to show their true form, not only in the US is this military of the police taking place, the has been an understanding for ages that some people will revolt from the on going corruption, greed, oppression and violence that's been inflicted on the masses for decades,

    Its called surpression and they want to make sure that they can quell any internal threat.

    China also has a brutal police force who will squash internal disorder.

  • -1

    scipantheist

    @Bertie No major politician that I know of in Japan is considering making an alliance militarily, politically, or economically with the PRC, but it seems you are are ready for one. I live in the US and it is not a war zone. AFAIK no protester has been killed in Ferguson. This is in stark contrast to the non-democracies. Start from a point of rationality and maybe people might agree with you.

  • -4

    bass4funk

    @bertie

    The USA is rapidly becoming a police state.

    So it's ok with you to have unruly thugs rule and take over the cities???

    The Communist World was said to be the "enemy of freedom and democracy," now it's the USA.

    Not all all, quite the contrary, we have freedom, but that doesn't mean, do what ever you want or shout fire in a crowded room.

    That SWAT TV show from 1975-76 was a real booster. Thanks Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg! Who've made lots of cash making (bad) cop show after cop show.

    Yup.

  • -1

    turbotsat

    There are not that many riots in the US. Wikipedia counts less than 20 incidents across the country so far in the 2010s, and around 25 in the 200s. Admittedly those are casual figure, but still. Having so few riots would mean almost all police involved are participating in their first and only riot, and a lot of cities are training and equipping police for riots they'll never see.

    We'd be better off reducing excess training and excess higher education for the public at large, and using the funds for expanding prisons to increase sentences and reduce incidents by repeat offenders of various crimes.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_civil_unrest_in_the_United_States#2010s

  • -3

    Frungy

    turbotsatAug. 19, 2014 - 01:32AM JST We'd be better off reducing excess training and excess higher education for the public at large, and using the funds for expanding prisons to increase sentences and reduce incidents by repeat offenders of various crimes.

    This topic seems to be bringing out the brain trust... you do know that education is pretty much the ONLY thing that has been proven to reduce violent crime, don't you?

    Prisons don't help at all, and neither do increased sentences (in fact increased sentences encourage more violent crime since if you're going away for 5 years for a mugging then you might as well reduce your chances of being caught by killing the person, because dead people can't testify).

    More police do help, but since you're not keen on giving them any training they're going to basically be hired thugs with no education, no future prospects and no motivation.

    Increase education, train the police, invest crime-prediction technology... oh, and if you're going to put anyone in prison then start with all the politicians and senior "civil servants", starting with the CIA and FBI. The problems in the U.S. are top-down, not bottom-up.

  • -4

    turbotsat

    you do know that education is pretty much the ONLY thing that has been proven to reduce violent crime, don't you?

    Based on what? Studies coming from the education industry? Don't you think that spending on tertiary education is academic to those high school dropouts who never go on to college? See note on dropouts, below.

    And, don't know if you know, but "higher education" in USA refers to education after high school. (See other notes below.)

    Tenure, sabbaticals, high unemployment (indicating high demand for spots), lack of suitability to purpose of sustaining the nation (browse theses/dissertations abstracts). A place apart on the trickle-down economy chain. (There are lots such professions but this is just one I happened to pick on.) How does that relate to the list of reasons dropouts gave for dropping out? (see below) Think it's helping them any?

    Prisons don't help at all

    Really? Want to try living in a place with crime but no prisons? There's no such thing as recidivism? If no prison, no long sentences, those inmates would be out living happily with us, and productive?

    More police do help, but since you're not keen on giving them any training

    Did you read my post? It says "Having so few riots would mean almost all police involved are participating in their first and only riot, and a lot of cities are training and equipping police for riots they'll never see." How do you extrapolate that to not "giving them any training"?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States

    Around 3 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 drop out of high school each year, a rate of 6.6 percent as of 2012.[citation needed] In the United States, 75 percent of crimes are committed by high school dropouts. Around 60 percent of black dropouts end up spending time incarcerated.[38] The incarceration rate for African-American male high school dropouts was about 50 times the national average as of 2010.[39]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education

    Higher education, post-secondary education, tertiary education or third level education is an optional final stage of formal learning that occurs after secondary education.

    http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/20/by-the-numbers-high-school-dropouts/

    ...

    Poverty and crime

    Dropouts make up nearly half the heads of households on welfare.

    High school dropouts commit about 75 percent of crimes in the U.S.

    Why they drop out

    Nearly half of students who drop out do it because they say their classes “aren’t interesting.”

    43% say they quit because they had too many absences and felt they couldn’t catch up.

    38% say they had “too much freedom and not enough rules.”

    35% quit because they were failing.

    How to fix the problem?

    81% of students who dropped out said they would like to see schools offer “real world” learning opportunities.

  • -2

    Frungy

    turbotsatAug. 19, 2014 - 03:31AM JST

    you do know that education is pretty much the ONLY thing that has been proven to reduce violent crime, don't you?

    Based on what? Studies coming from the education industry? Don't you think that spending on tertiary education is academic to those high school dropouts who never go on to college? See note on dropouts, below.

    And, don't know if you know, but "higher education" in USA refers to education after high school. (See other notes below.)

    ... and there you go off the rails in the first line of your response. Re-read the line from my post you quoted. Any reference to "higher" education? Nope, just education in general, which includes training, both of which you're down on.

    No skills or education = no jobs = crime. Which is a point proven by the statistics you cite.

    What the U.S. needs is MORE education (lower, middle, higher, skills-oriented, etc.), not less.

    The problem with the U.S. is that the quality of education there is shocking. Coursework doctorates?? Wtf?? If you can't contribute something entirely new and original to the field then you really don't deserve a doctorate.

  • -2

    turbotsat

    I specifically wrote "higher education". You wrote "education", ignoring that I wrote "higher education" in my post, and making it about a different topic. Understand? Two different things, "Education" and "Higher Education".

    Same for training. I was specifically addressing "riot training" in a country with so few riots. You turned it into "you're not keen on giving them any training". "Riot training" does not equal "any training".

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