As our country grapples with how to decrease police brutality, police excessive force, and unjustified police shootings, it is worth noting how the police violence plaguing many cities is fed by the extreme militarization of local police forces. Through federal grants and Department of Defense donations, billions of dollars worth of military equipment has found its way to local police departments in recent years: armored personnel carriers, tanks, and serious high-tech gear. We militarize the police, arming them like elite soldier units, and then we are surprised when the culture of over-militarized police departments breeds officers who respond with unnecessary aggression.
The source of much of the military equipment finding its way to (often small town) civilian police forces is called the Section 1033 Program, a program authorizing the free transfer of new or used military equipment to local police forces, including tanks, missiles, machine guns and weaponized drones. Although the Section 1033 Program has been in place for many years, it is only recently that its use exploded: in 1990, the Department of Defense invoked Section 1033 to give $1 million in military equipment to local police authorities; a 2013 report put the amount distributed by the Defense Department to municipal law enforcement agencies at $4.2 billion, with a record $546 million in 2012 alone. In Chicago, for instance, the CPD has received more than 1200 assault rifles, along with body armor, mine resistant vehicles, and an armored vehicle.
In response to that dramatic trend and its disturbing consequences – like the Ferguson Police Department’s paramilitary response to protesters – on May 19, 2015, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the Department of Defense from selling or giving state and local police forces: certain armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft or vehicles; grenade launchers; bayonets; camouflage uniforms; and firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher. Of course, these items may still be purchased elsewhere, and police departments are free to keep whatever military equipment they already have, but it at least puts a halt to the huge military handouts. Of concern, there has been no consistent tracking of what has been purchased or how it is being used. Although the Department of Homeland Security has awarded billions of dollars in grants to local police for purchasing military equipment, the Department has not kept close track of what has been purchased and where.
A stunning helmet camera video of the Evansville Police Department’s use of military gear shows how the equipment can change the way police forces interact with suspects. In the video, the police were executing a search warrant, looking for evidence of who had written anonymous internet posts on a message board threatening the Evansville Police Department and its Police Chief. The video of the execution of a search warrant in response to these allegations looks like something out of a war movie. It shows almost a dozen heavily armed officers pouring from a military vehicle, shattering a door, and throwing flash grenades into the home before entering aggressively and cuffing the tiny 18 year old suspect and her 68 year old adoptive mother. A neighbor and suspected gang leader later confessed to posting the internet comments at issue, remotely accessing a router from the searched home that was not password protected. The video clip below shows the officers standing amid their destruction, laughing and joking about the power of their equipment:
If we hope to end unnecessary police violence, it is time for our police forces to return to a more cooperative community model. As long as we have SWAT teams armed to the hilt and playing Rambo, unnecessary violence and aggression are sure to follow.