A recent Tenth Amendment Center article on an Oregon bill to help block federal militarization of police caught the attention of the U.S Department of Defense.
House Bill 3243 (HB3243) would bar state and local police departments from acquiring certain types of military gear from federal military surplus programs, and would require public disclosure before police could obtain allowable equipment. The law would apply both to the well-known 1033 program, along with any other military surplus program operated by the federal government.
Susan Lowe in the public affairs office of the Defense Logistics Agency took issue with my characterization of mine resistant armored vehicles (MRAPS) as “essentially unarmed tanks.” She called my description “misleading.”
“MRAPs and tanks are two totally different vehicles. A tank is a heavily armored tracked vehicle that has a rotating turret that carries a cannon. It is designed to attack. It can only carry its crew, which consists of four people including a vehicle commander, a gunner, a loader for the gun and a driver.
“An MRAP is a truck. It has wheels, not tracks. It does not have a cannon in a rotating turret. It is a truck that is armored to protect its occupants. The windshield and window glass are designed to resist small arms fire to protect the occupants. It is designed to protect, not to attack.”
First, I have to note that I didn’t say an MRAP is a tank. I said an MRAP is essentially an unarmed tank. The word “essentially” implies similar but not the same.
At any rate, I stand by it. In fact, a U.S. Army soldier who did a tour in Afghanistan described an MRAP to his dad this way.
“it’s basically a tank shaped like a garbage truck.”
If a soldier who served in a combat zone feels comfortable comparing an MRAP with a tank, I think I’m OK to go with it.
Note Lowe’s emphasis on “tracks” as a differentiating characteristic between MRAPs and tanks. In fact, the DOD did make tracked vehicles available to police departments in the past. Pres. Obama issued an executive order in the wake of the Ferguson riots removing them from the list of allowable equipment, along with other controversial items. Police departments were required to return them. A prohibited equipment list developed based on the EO includes tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels and vehicles of any kind; firearms of .50-caliber or higher; ammunition of .50-caliber or higher; grenade launchers; bayonets; and camouflage uniforms.
Along with chastising me for my description of MRAPs, Lowe emphasized that the 1033 program does not make available some of the equipment mentioned in our report.
“The Congressionally established 1033 program has never provided tanks. I’d also like to emphasize the 1033 program doesn’t issue body armor or provide vehicles or aircraft with weaponry.”
The fact it was necessary to specifically prohibit specific equipment by EO implies that it was theoretically available at some point, and could become available again down the road. Just because the DOD doesn’t currently provide tanks, body armor, or armed aircraft doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. In fact, according to a followup email from Lowe, the program did offer body armor to local police until 2008, and it still makes the vests available minus the armor plates. In practice, it would only take a new executive order by Pres. Trump, or any future president, to once again make all of the currently prohibited equipment available.
This makes it crucial to pass legislation such as Oregon HB3243. Under the proposed bill, law enforcement agencies would not be able to receive or maintain automatic weapons not generally used or recognized as suitable for law enforcement purposes, weaponized drones, combat aircraft, grenades (including flash-bangs and stun grenades), firearms silencers, long-range acoustic devices, and tanks or similar vehicles. You may note the DOD currently prohibits many of the items on Oregon’s banned list. But again, we have no guarantee they won’t be available in the future. Prohibiting them at the state level will ensure this type of equipment never ends up in the hands of local police in Oregon, no matter what the federal government decides.
So, why did the Defense Logistics Agency take the time to respond to a Tenth Amendment Center report on state efforts to restrict militarization of police? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it has to do with the 1033 program’s image problem, public backlash against militarized police in the streets and the fact somebody somewhere realized, “Hey, it might not be a good idea to give Barney Fife an armored truck and a grenade launcher.” The working group tasked with implementing Obama’s post-Ferguson EO hints at this.
“The Working Group concluded that a prohibition on acquisition of such equipment by LEAs from Federal programs is appropriate because the substantial risk of misusing or overusing these items, which are seen as militaristic in nature, could significantly undermine community trust and may encourage tactics and behaviors that are inconsistent with the premise of civilian law enforcement.” [Emphasis added]
The federal government has aggressively worked to arm local police through 1033 and other federal programs for years. Proponents of police militarization always talk about protecting police officers and the danger of terrorism. But the main function of local police militarization revolves around the unconstitutional “war on drugs.” After all, wars require soldiers, and the federal government doesn’t have the manpower to fight alone. The feds need state and local police to serve as foot-soldiers in their drug war. Militarization, combined with asset forfeiture cash, incentivizes the necessary cooperation.
In fact, a survey of applications made to federal programs by state and local law enforcement agencies revealed the drug war was by far the most common reason given for needing to militarize police officers.
Over the last two decades, police militarization has fundamentally changed policing. Law enforcement has evolved from “serve and protect” to “command and control.”
The feds can to try to slap lipstick on a pig by quibbling over TACs characterization of MRAPs as “essentially” tanks, but as long as police can get free military toys from Washington D.C., with virtually no oversight, “peace officers” will continue to operate like 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.