News Section: Opinion
Ferguson Shines Spotlight on Militarized Police Forces
Over the past decade, even small local police departments have begun looking more and more like heavily-weaponized military units. The public response to what we are now seeing up close in Ferguson, MO has largely been one of shock, with many Americans quite surprised at what looked more like a scene from our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, than the streets of a small town in our country's heartland.
They are even more shocked when they learn that the force in St. Louis County isn't very unique. Even some members of Congress have feigned outrage that such a mobilization would be turned on U.S. citizens, the vast majority of whom were protesting in a nonviolent manner. But while the American public has a right to be alarmed, Washington doesn't. They've been writing the checks to pay for the new toys for nearly 20 years.
In a big wet kiss to the defense industry, Congress began the 1033 program in 1997, which greatly expanded the disbursement of excess military equipment to local police forces. After the attacks of September 11, much more money began to flow toward such weapon transfers, ostensibly so that police departments would be well resourced, should they have to battle terrorists on the streets of American cities. So far, the Pentagon has donated military equipment worth more than $4 billion to local law enforcement agencies, including $500 million worth in 2011 alone.
The program, however, seems to have been driven more by the profitability of the items procured than any sort of sensible consideration as to whether they are appropriate for the department at hand. A $700,000 mine-resistant, armored personnel carrier doesn't seem to have a cost-effective utility outside of an all-out war zone, yet it is one of the most popular items given to even very small forces.
There doesn't seem to be many instances where such vehicles would be needed, especially when you consider that they are not designed to be driven on paved roads, as they are so heavy they often destroy the concrete. There's also the clear lack of training and accountability when comparing a small (or even large) domestic police force to the United States Military.
Once forces secure these "anti-terrorist" weapons, there is scant restriction on using them for purposes other than fighting terrorists. Mostly, they seem to be used for delivering warrants related to suspected drug sales. However, while the military has strict rules of engagement for every operation, and its soldiers are held to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the behavior of these “highly-tactical” units is anything but uniform and at times highly suspect.
In Ferguson, police officers dressed in body armor and gas masks routinely leveled their assault rifles at unarmed, peaceful protesters. When the military does crowd control, a rifle is never leveled unless it is for the purpose of potential engagement. They're also very sensitive to the idea that their mere presence can escalate a tense situation and have clear rules of engagement to minimize such risk. One example of how not to do that would be the officer in Ferguson who was caught on video telling protesters, "Bring it, all you f*cking animals! Bring it!"
Another would be the two journalists who were assaulted and arrested after taking video of a police unit inside of a McDonald's. There has been a frightening trend of hostility toward the media in Ferguson, and apparently many law enforcement officers have not been educated that not only the media but the members of the public have the right to videotape them in public. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Riley v. California that they cannot confiscate a cell phone without a warrant.
A recent ACLU study found that the majority of SWAT unit deployments are to serve warrants, often where police hope to find even a small amount of drugs. A few months back, a SWAT team in Atlanta busted into an apartment where undercover officers said they had purchased meth amphetamine. They used a flash grenade when something seemed to be jammed against a door they were trying to ram. That something was a baby's crib. The grenade went off atop his pillow as he slept, maiming the innocent 19-month old for life.
There's also the very big gap in accountability between the military and local police when it comes to being responsible for dangerous weapons. In 2011, a Manatee County Sheriff's Deputy left his high-power rifle unattended on top of his vehicle while leaving for work, supposedly because his dog had run into the street. He then left it there when he drove off, where it was later found by someone in the neighborhood, who – thankfully – turned it in to police. The deputy was suspended for 8.5 hours – one shift.
Anyone who's ever been in the military knows that you'd face considerably stiffer punishment just for accidentally not keeping a rifle pointed down range during weapons qualification, even if it was on safety or unloaded. Losing your rifle, especially someplace where a child could get a hold of it, would cost you your career. That might seem harsh, but when you enter a career profession in which you are entrusted with lethal force, there needs to be an appropriate level of accountability which needs to increase in direct proportion to firepower. That doesn't seem to be happening.
There's no question that police sometimes face dangerous and well-armed opposition, or that a protest scene can become a deadly environment. There is, however, a question as to whether arming civilian police officers like they were soldiers in combat zones makes our communities safer or more dangerous. Having tanks, cops dressed like Call of Duty characters, attack dogs and leveled assault rifles at a demonstration can easily make things worse. When does the threat of escalation outweigh the potential to peacefully quell? Who decides?
In these days of beleaguered municipal budgets, I don't expect police forces to resist seeking out opportunities to score federal funding in whatever shape it comes. But the real looting is happening at the treasury. These programs are clearly set up as a boondoggle to ensure that the defense industry can keep raking in cash even in times of relative peace. If Congress cared about the safety of our communities and our police officers, that money would be better spent on grants to put additional officers on the street, or rectify the dangerously-low guard to prisoner ratio in our corrections facilities.
In doling out such pork, our Congress has acted irresponsibly, using our own tax dollars to turn our small-town police departments into paramilitary forces, and the potential for disaster seems much higher than the potential for such armament to be proven justified. It's time they take steps to demilitarize our police forces. If there actually are instances in which such a use of military force can be justified, the governor can mobilize the state's National Guard. Only then can we can regain a clear distinction between protect and serve police departments and combat soliders.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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