The recent confrontations between the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department and the city’s African-American community have served at least one purpose: it has shown the entire nation that too many police departments have become militarized units committed to absolute control, rather than to “protect and serve.” A June 8, 2014 New York Times report found that during the administration of President Obama “police departments [had] received thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”
For example, USA Today reported this past March that the Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina Police Department, which serves a small community of 16,000 people, acquired some Humvees and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs. The department’s chief, Tommy Hathaway, said the equipment was needed “prevent mass casualties and to extricate people.”
Ruben Santiago, the police chief of Columbia, South Carolina, was more blunt in his assessment. He justified his department’s free acquisition of a $700,000 MRAP by saying the military vehicle “will be a barrier between the public and a hostile person or situations such as a barricaded suspect with weapons who may be threatening someone’s life.”
Does a military-styled, military-equipped, and military dressed police department truly serve its basic tenet—to serve and protect? Consider that in the early stages of the Ferguson civil disobedience confrontations, when the city’s police department was in control, armored vehicles patrolled the streets and officers trained short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles on the very citizens they are supposed to protect and serve.
The Ferguson Police Department does not stand alone in its desertion and adoption from the “protect and serve” tenet to the “fear and intimidation” model. USA Today reported that the following police departments in recent months have acquired free MRAPs returned home from the Iraq/Afghanistan war zone: Texas’s McLennan and Dallas Counties; Idaho’s Boise and Nampa; Indiana’s West Lafayette, Merrillville and Madison; Minnesota’s St. Cloud and Dakota County; New York’s Warren and Jefferson Counties; South Carolina’s North Augusta and Columbia; Tennessee’s Murfreesboro; Arizona’s Yuma; Illinois’s Kankakee County; and Alabama’s Calhoun County.
This past June the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a 100-page report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” which chronicled information obtained through public records requests from 260 law enforcement agencies in 26 states which revealed that police militarization “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
Writing for AlterNet, Alex Kane recently succinctly summed up the situation this way: “The ‘war on terror’ has come home – and it’s wreaking havoc on innocent American lives. The culprit is the militarization of the police.” As Kane pointed out, far too many police departments now have “military-grade equipment” and have re-trained their officers to act like “an invading army.” This gung-ho 101st Airborne mentality had resulted in a marked increase in what many observers call “military-style police raids”—Kane putting the number or raids at 80,000 last year alone.
Some of these raids have tragically been staged at the wrong address, resulting in the deaths or serious injuries to innocent homeowners or their small children, like 19-month-old Bou Bou who had a “flash-bang” grenade land in his crib during a SWAT team raid in Habersham County, Georgia this past May. The ACLU report documented seven cases where people died in the raids and another 46 were injured—and these numbers reflect only a limited number of cases examined by the civil rights organization. It is estimated that approximately 400 civilians are killed each year in the U.S. by the police in what are called “justifiable homicides.” Some of those were innocent people killed by police in “military-style raids.”
Where does all the military equipment come from? ABC News earlier this year reported that the U.S. Department of Defense maintains a program called the Pentagon Pipeline which redistributes “billions of dollars” in surplus military gear and equipment to the nation’s police departments. Officially the program is the Pentagon’s 1033 Program which, to date, has allowed “thousands of Federal, Tribal, State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies” to secure assault weapons, drones, and other military-grade equipment like Humvees and MRAPs in order to “protect and serve”—one local police department actually used its Humvee to patrol high school grounds. According to the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office, a law enforcement agency must meet on a mere three criteria in order to get military-grade equipment: have a primary function of enforcing laws, properly compensate its officers, and possess the power to arrest and apprehend. Satisfy that simple criteria, Barney Fife becomes a “Warrior Cop.”
That’s why House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees member Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) is preparing legislation that would reign the out of-control 1033 Program. Johnson’s legislation would ban the distribution of MRAPs, armored personnel carriers, drones, military assault weapons and aircraft to police departments. The lawmaker has stated that he fears America’s “main streets” are increasingly being turned into combat “war zones,” as was evidenced so visually in news reports from Ferguson, Missouri.
The tragedy is that most of military-style raids staged in this country are unnecessary, according to the ACLU. Their report found that when the police launched these raids in search of weapons, they were right only one-third of the time. Thus, the police can better serve the communities in this country with the conventional “protect and serve” model rather than with the Rambo-style “shoot first and let the grand jury cover it up” model.
We have no problem with cops being cops. What we do have a problem with is cops being “warrior cops.” We are not at war with our self in this country—at least not yet. The Defense Department should confiscate all the military grade equipment it has poured into local police departments and use it to fight wars. It does not belong in police departments where it can be used in assaults on the American people.