Decked out in federally-provided body armor, automatic weapons and armored vehicles, America’s local police look more and more like soldiers heading off to war than cops patrolling neighborhood streets. When confronted with this dichotomy, cops swear they need all this military gear to protect us from terrorists, hostage takers and nut-job mass shooters.
But in private, cops tell a different story.
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, Mt. Sterling, Ky., has a population of just under 7,000 residents, and according to Mt. Sterling Police Chief David Charles, his department of 21 officers needs an armored vehicle.
Charles’ request for a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) was among more than 450 local requests for armored vehicles obtained by Mother Jones magazine. These documents reveal that the scare tactics law enforcement agencies and their apologists use to sell federal militarization of police to the general public differ markedly from the reasons they give the feds when actually applying for military gear.
The federal government has provided local law enforcement with $5.6 billion in military grade combat equipment through the Pentagon’s 1033 program. When challenged about the need to turn peace officers into combat troops, sheriffs, police chiefs and other law enforcement apologists quickly resort to scare tactics.
Law enforcement agencies responded by stoking old fears. No community, they argued, not even the smallest one, is safe from worst-case scenarios like mass shootings, hostage situations, or terrorist attacks. The use of this military equipment has resulted in “substantial positive impact on public safety and officer safety,” Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a research group, said in a 2014 Senate hearing on police militarization. He cited hostage situations, rescue missions, and heavy-duty shootouts where the vehicles had come in useful.
But when Chief Charles filled out the Mt. Sterling Police Department’s request for an MRAP, he didn’t mention hostage situations, or terrorism, or rescue missions. No, this 21 officer police force needs armored vehicles for an entirely different reason.
“Our agency has implemented a narcotics unit which has been responsible for over seven hundred narcotics cases over the last six years. These arrests can be very volatile. We are attempting to provide our officers and the public with the best possible equipment.”
In fact, a survey of applications revealed the drug war was by far the most common reason given for needing to militarize police officer.
I guess that makes sense.
Soldiers fight wars.
Soldiers use military gear.
Mother Jones breaks it all down.
Fully a quarter of the 465 requests projected using the vehicles for drug enforcement. Almost half of all departments indicated that they sit within a region designated by the federal government as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (Nationwide, only 17 percent of counties are HIDTAs.) One out of six departments were prepared to use the vehicles to serve search or arrest warrants on individuals who had yet to be convicted of a crime. And more than half of the departments indicated they were willing to deploy armored vehicles in a broad range of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids.
By contrast, out of the total 465 requests, only 8 percent mention the possibility of a barricaded gunman. For hostage situations, the number is 7 percent, for active shooters, 6 percent. Only a handful mentioned downed officers or the possibility of terrorism.
Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied police militarization for decades told Mother Jones, “This is a great example of how police as an institution talk to each other privately, versus how they talk to the public and journalists who might raise questions about what they’re doing with this equipment,” says When police are pressured in public, Kraska says, “They’re going to say, ‘How about Columbine?’ or point to all these extremely rare circumstances.”
Simply put, Chief Charles and his ilk lie to you (or at best stretch the truth) when they tell you they need armored vehicles and other military gear in order to protect you from terrorists and crazy shooters. The simple fact is they primarily want to dress local cops up as Rambo so they can serve on the front lines of the federal government’s unconstitutional “War on Drugs.” It is, after all, a lucrative business. Between 2008 and 2014, the Mt. Sterling Police Department pocketed more than $48,000 in asset forfeiture money according to a Washington Post report. That represents $8,000 per year additional funding into the tiny department’s budget.
Of course, the feds more than happily oblige. They need the troops. They don’t have the resources to fight the “drug war” on their own.
Police departments apply for and obtain military gear with virtually no public input and zero oversight. But we have the power to stop federal militarization of police outright, or to start, at least create some transparency and accountability through state action.
Last year, New Jersey took a first step with a law requiring local government approval before a law enforcement agency can apply for military gear from the federal government. The new law won’t end the militarization of New Jersey law enforcement by Washington D.C., but it does create a mechanism for local communities to stop it in their jurisdictions. Citizens now have the power and a forum to pressure elected officials, at the city or county level, to vote against such acquisitions, or face the consequences in the next election cycle. The new law also creates an environment of transparency that didn’t exist before.
A new law on the books in Montana takes things to the next level, imposing an outright ban on local cops obtaining certain military gear from the feds.
The new law prohibits state or local law enforcement agencies from receiving drones that are armored, weaponized, or both; aircraft that are combat configured or combat coded; grenades or similar explosives and grenade launchers; silencers; and “militarized armored vehicles.”
Another bill getting close to reaching the governor’s desk in California falls somewhere in between the two.
These states provide a blueprint to stop federal militarization of police. By making it a local decision, the New Jersey law took a great first step. The Montana law takes things to the next level, by closing loopholes and covering almost all of the bases. One step remains – expand the types of equipment included in the ban.
As long as police can get free military toys from Washington D.C., and with no oversight, they will continue to turn “peace officers” into armed combat troops. That can only mean more police shootings, brutalization and innocent people hurt in military-style police operations. And it also enables the federal government to perpetuate its unconstitutional war on drugs.
Ending federal militarization of police by strangling it at the state and local level will not only mean safer, more secure local communities, it will also limit federal power by rolling back state and local participation in the unconstitutional federal drug war.
For more information and to get involved in ending federal militarization of police in your state, click HERE.
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