America's Police Are Looking More and More Like the Military
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
America's streets are looking more and more like a war zone. Last week, in a small county in upstate New York with a population of roughly 120,000 people, county legislators approved the receipt of a 20-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, donated by the US Defense Department to the county sheriff.
Between the Armored Personnel Carriers locking down main streets in major American cities – mimicking our MRAPs in Afghanistan – or Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) and Special Forces units canvassing our country, if we're not careful, this militarization of our domestic policing will make-over America, and fast.
Here's how it all happened. A little-known Pentagon program has been quietly militarizing American police forces for years. A total of $4.2bn worth of equipment has been distributed by the Defense Department to municipal law enforcement agencies, with a record $546m in 2012 alone.
In the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997, the "1033 program" was born. It allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment to local police forces.
Though the program's existed since the 1990s, it has expanded greatly in recent years, due, in part, to post-9/11 fears and sequestration budget cuts. The expanse, however, seems unnecessary given that the Department of Homeland Security has already handed out $34bn in "terrorism grants" to local polices forces – without oversight mind you – to fund counter-terrorism efforts.
Additional militarization, then, deserves congressional attention as the program is harmful and must be scaled back for a number of reasons.
First, the program is transforming our police into a military. The results of such over-militarized law enforcement are apparent from the dispersion of Occupy protesters in Oakland to the city-wide lockdown in Boston. As retired police chief Norm Stamper stated to the Associated Press:
We make a serious mistake, I'm convinced, in equipping domestic law enforcement, particularly in smaller, rural communities, with this much military equipment.
Tanks, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and assault rifles are just a few of the items that have been transferred from military control to municipal police forces. Law enforcement agencies need only to arrange and pay for shipment in order to receive the items of their choice (pdf). One particularly egregious example is found in South Carolina, where Richland County's sheriff acquired a tank with 360-degree rotating machine gun turrets. Sardonically, the vehicle has been named " the Peacemaker".
Swat teams, furthermore, are no longer found only in large, high-crime areas. Instead, even small rural towns now have the equipment to arm their own paramilitary units. Investigative reporter Radley Balko estimates that around 150 Swat raids are performed every day in the United States.
Second, the program encourages waste. Never mind, for a moment, that neither the Defense Department nor the Homeland Security Department has been audited – the only two unaudited government departmentsincidentally. Any waste from the 1033 program, then, has gone unnoticed thus far.
Municipalities' stockpiles have grown exponentially with billions of dollars' worth of weaponry and equipment they simply do not need. This giveaway has created a shopping frenzy among law enforcement officials keen to scoop up equipment before someone else does.
Take a look at these examples. A small town in Georgia without a body of water acquired boats and scuba gear. The same town ordered a shipment of bayonets, which is now collecting dust. In Texas, a town of only 835 residents received more than $3m worth of equipment, including deep-fat fryers, televisions, and playground equipment. The stories abound.