When people demanded, “Get the weapons of war off America’s streets” they were talking about AR-15s and other military-grade weapons in the hands of criminals. Today that demand is targeted at police.
Since the late 1990s, the Federal 1033 Program allowed local law enforcement agencies to get their hands on all sorts of military hardware.
In 2014, America saw firsthand the use of military equipment in local law enforcement. Since Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri, local law enforcement agencies have received more than $850 million worth of equipment through the Department of Defense, according to BuzzFeed News.
The 1033 Program provides things like heavily armored personnel carriers, aircraft, ammunition, and other military equipment. The same military equipment we see every evening on the news in Minneapolis, New York City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia to name a few.
During the protests in Ferguson following Brown’s death, Paul Szoldra — a former Iraqi war veteran — described what he saw in photographs of the responding police.
“We are shown a heavily armed SWAT team. They have short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles … with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters. On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each,” Szoldra wrote in Business Insider.
He continued, “They wear green tops, and pants fashioned after the U.S. Marine Corps MARPAT camouflage pattern. And they stand in front of a massive uparmored truck called a Bearcat, similar in look to a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle.”
The militarization of the police is not unique to big incidents in big cities. In 2014, Eastern Kentucky University professor Dr. Peter Kraska testified before a congressional committee that the line between police and military is quickly blurring.
In the mid-1980s, one-third of police departments had SWAT teams, Kraska told the Louisville Courier-Journal. Now more than 80% of all police departments have a SWAT team. The number of SWAT deployments skyrocketed from 3,000 a year in the 1980s to an estimated 60,000 annually.
Though tactical raids are commonly associated with police response to potentially violent situations, an ACLU report found that “only a small handful of deployments — 7% — were for hostage, barricade or active shooter scenarios.” According to the report, more than 60% of deployments were to search for drugs or for serving warrants on individual residences.
Local police departments have welcomed surplus military equipment from the Pentagon. Some local police departments are so eager to get the free surplus gear they have made an investment in keeping the military equipment flowing. Law enforcement unions or police departments have spent millions lobbying Congress to keep the surplus program in place. In fact, since 2007 the National FOP spends about $220,000 a year on lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In 2015, President Barack Obama issued an executive order limiting the availability of military-grade equipment to local police departments. Seven different bills in the House and Senate entitled “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” have never been voted upon. In 2017, President Donald Trump overturned Obama’s executive order curtailing the 1033 Program.
A study published in 2018 by Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor at Princeton University, found that militarized policing is ineffective in decreasing crime and protecting police, and may actually weaken the public’s image of the police.
Mummulo wrote, “The routine use of militarized police tactics by local agencies threatens to further the historic tensions between marginalized groups and the state with no detectable public safety benefit.”
The study was prophetic. Trump’s call for military intervention in America’s cities and towns is horrifying, but for many, the “military,” in the form of local police with military equipment and military
tactics, has already arrived.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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