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Possessing Military-Grade Weaponry Isn't the Only Reason Police Wage War

The scenes from Ferguson have prompted a critique of militarized policing — but the problem runs deeper than the flow of surplus Army gear.
August 16, 2014, 1:10pm
Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP

"Waste not, want not," as the saying goes. The opposite sentiment — "Want not? Waste!" — has never really caught on. Which, in the case of US military equipment, adds up to a nationwide disaster in domestic policing.

The images this week coming out of Ferguson, Missouri showing a poor American suburb under siege have highlighted the militarized state of municipal policing. Between Sunday night and Thursday, Ferguson saw thick clouds of tear gas, L-RAD sound cannons, camouflage fatigues, and M4 rifles. Surely, commentators noted, we reserve this war machinery for foreign soil?


SWAT-teams in Ferguson brought the fact of militarized domestic policing to the fore, but it's nothing new. Investigative reporter Radley Balko could have predicted the scenes of Army-style law enforcement in suburban Missouri. His book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, traces the trend back several decades, pinpointing the emergence of the SWAT unit in response to dissent in the 1960s.

Police have named the cop who shot Michael Brown. Read more here.

The movement of military technologies and equipment to the domestic law enforcement sphere — from guns to armor to drones — is now so common it is basically a rite of passage. A number of reports this week prompted by shock at the militaristic policing of suburban unrest highlighted the specific Pentagon program responsible for funneling military gear into municipal police departments. The Defense Department's Excess Property Program — also known as the 1033 program — provides refurbished military equipment to domestic law enforcement.

It's little surprise that after more than a decade of protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no shortage of this "excess." And indeed, program 1033 has seen transfers from the US military to US cops increase considerably in recent years. As theWashington Post reported, "In 2006, it made 34,708 transfers worth $33 million to law enforcement agencies. Last year, the number grew to 51,779 transfers valued at $420 million, according to data provided by the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the program. Through April of this year, the agency had made 15,516 transfers of equipment worth $206 million." Program 1033 sits alongside similar programs enacted by the Justice Department and DHS.

Programs like 1033 might explain the hows of militarized local police. The whys are more concerning.

Programs like 1033 might explain the hows of militarized local police. The whys are more concerning. In Balko's estimation, a paranoid national security ideology, emergent and crystallized in recent decades, undergirds the rise of the "warrior cop." There is a framework of domestic governance that sees a possible enemy in every citizen — and likely enemies in black and brown men. It is the sort of mentality that wages boundless war on amorphous concepts, like drugs and terror. The US has in recent decades picked enemies unconfined by geography or border; little wonder, then, that the war zone crept home.

As such, I see little promise in legislative efforts to put an end to increased militarization of domestic policing. Georgia Representative Hank Johnson has drafted a bill to limit program 1033 and curtail the flow of surplus military equipment to cops; he intends to introduce the bill to the House when Congress returns from recess in September. Meanwhile, Senator Rand Paul on Thursday opined in Time magazine against "using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies."


In terms of the proliferation of SWAT team policing, I'd say efforts toward moderation come a little too late. Attempts to lessen the rate of increased militarization would not amount to a rollback; we will not be seeing a ritual destruction of Bear Cat armored vehicles in the name of demilitarized policing. And, to be sure, military-grade weaponry is not the only problem with US police departments. Tanks and teargas make for a terrifying visual, and serve as a daunting reminder of the lengths authorities will go to in response to dissent.

But it didn't take a SWAT team to kill Michael Brown, the Ferguson teen whose death by police bullet catalyzed this week's unrest. Indeed, it didn't even take a gun for police to execute Eric Garner in New York — he was choked to death, unarmed on a Staten Island street corner. Within the last 10 days, the LAPD reportedly beat one father of three to death after stopping him for erratic driving and shot dead one mentally challenged man as he lay on the ground — no military-grade weapons necessary for the horrors of police violence in either incident.

The Ferguson cops have been more inept than strategic. Read more here.

Problems of police thuggery and racism transcend militarization. Which is not to say I don't support efforts to stem the flow of tanks and assault weapons to trigger-happy local police. My point is simply that this would only address the issue of equipment, not attitude or ideology. It's an insidious civil war that won't be ended by a decrease in hand-me-down tanks.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard