Stop the Pentagon program that militarizes U.S. police forces

By Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers
August 14, 2014

Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Missouri

The article originally ran last October. It has been updated by the authors.

There is a growing bipartisan public outrage about the local police force’s fiercely militarized response to protestors in Ferguson, Missouri.

From Democrats to Republicans, progressive to libertarian, citizens across the political spectrum are denouncing the efforts to stop demonstrations over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American teenager.

Legislators are also speaking out against this militarization of police. Representative Justin Amash (R-Mich.) described the situation as ‚Äúfrightening.‚ÄĚ Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) a moderate, called the police tactics ‚Äúthe problem instead of the solution.‚Ä̬† Meanwhile, libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated flatly in an op-ed, ‚ÄúWe must de-militarize the police.‚ÄĚ

Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, MissouriAmericans have been stunned to see pictures of police driving armored vehicles through neighborhoods, brandishing weapons of war at unarmed citizens.

But this is nothing new. In October 2013, Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) were regularly finding their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. They were the latest acquisitions in a growing Pentagon practice that’s militarizing America’s municipal police forces.

In that one month, police departments in Boise and Nampa, Idaho, each acquired an MRAP, as did the force in High Springs, Florida. The offer of war-ready machinery, at practically no cost, has proven hard to resist for local police departments. They look increasingly like soldiers equipped for battle.

The growing similarity between our domestic police forces and the U.S. military is a result of the Pentagon’s 1033 Program. This allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies. In addition to the frightening presence of paramilitary weapons in American towns, the program has led to rampant fraud and abuse.

ferg -- mrap-trade-showIt does not have to be this way. Congress can, and must, take decisive steps to scale back the program and demilitarize American police forces. Here’s how to do it.

First, Congress should permanently ban the transfer of all military-grade equipment to our cities. The program has already transferred enough impractical machinery to local police forces ‚ÄĒ material that many police departments do not have the skill to use safely or the money to maintain. Georgia‚Äôs Cobb County, for example, acquired one AR-15 assault rifle for each of its patrol vehicles, while Tupelo, Mississippi, received a helicopter that needed $100,000 worth of upgrades and $20,000 each year in maintenance.

Second, strict oversight must be implemented and consistently enforced if the Pentagon insists on continuing the program. Congress must step up to manage the program by setting new rules and restrictions. Localities not in full compliance must be barred from participation in the program.

Shocking, almost comical, examples of abuse have been well-documented — from the officer who sold his weapons on eBay, to the one who lent his weapons to unauthorized friends and the police departments that lost the military weapons or tried to auction them off.

Now is the time for our policymakers to demand more from the Defense Department. In order to participate, law enforcement agencies should be able to account for 100 percent of the equipment they receive every year. This should be a no-brainer.

Riot police stand guard while demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MissouriIf they cannot, they should be removed from the program. If state coordinators do not verify compliance in person, the states should be removed from the program. And if the Defense Department cannot successfully report full compliance to Congress every year, the program should be suspended.

It is unacceptable for U.S. police to receive such hazardous weapons and equipment without oversight. It is particularly unacceptable for those who have proven to be incompetent, wasteful or irresponsible with the equipment they have received to remain eligible for more free items.

Ultimately, it is Congress’s responsibility to protect its constituents’ safety and financial interests, which could be threatened by the program mismanagement.

Unless Americans want their towns patrolled by armored military vehicles, their skies humming with drones, and their local police officers equipped with assault weapons, they should encourage Congress to scale the program back promptly.

Taxpayer money should not have to support the costs of maintaining the weapons of war that local police forces have acquired. Citizens deserve to know that their congressional leaders and law enforcement officers are working together to protect them — not recklessly engaging in a gluttonous arms race or irresponsibly losing dangerous weapons.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Missouri, August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni 

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Attendees look at the Lenco MRAP Bear SWAT Team vehicle at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Riot police stand guard while demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

 

16 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Follow the money. An absurdly large amount of money was appropriated for “anti-terrorism” during the go-go years of the Bush Administration and the military-industrial complex cashed in.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Indeed, bluepanther.

These weapons of war also alter the mindset of the personalities using them.

Ferguson gave us a preview of that.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

This militarization of police makes these wanna-be Rambos view us American Citizens as the enemy. Just look at the Ferguson videos for proof.

Posted by SunnyDaySam | Report as abusive

YES! Also stop the Federal Grants that buy military style guns and ammunition for cities and towns. One small swat team is sufficient for most cities and towns in America. This over-the-top militarization of local police forces must stop.

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

bluepanther, I’m a Clinton supporter but do remember when President Bill Clinton promoted federal money to help local police departments get better weapons because criminals had high-powered weapons and police did not. However, I’m sure most democrats did not plan on these programs getting so out of hand. Here is a link to an article in Business Week that has more information:
http://www.businessweek.com/articles/201 4-08-14/ferguson-shooting-how-military-g ear-ended-up-with-local-police

Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

For the most part, local taxing bodies will not approve funds to arm police forces; people refuse to pay the taxes for this just as they refuse to pay the necessary taxes to educate their children. They look to state and federal funding to do what they should do themselves, then they claim there is “big government.”

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

Yes, let’s arm the drug cartels like we did with Fast and Furious and leave our police force without adequate weapons to defend against them.

Posted by moonhill | Report as abusive

An AR-15 locked inside a patrol car is not the same as an MRAP with a fully body armored police sniper in the roof turret. The excess military equipment used to go to the National guard. The National Guard armory was a multi purpose asset for communities all over the country. If they were called out, the National Guard brought the military gear. It needs to go back in that direction and fast.

Posted by DennisVictor223 | Report as abusive

What is ironic is that while police departments throughout the country are arming up with military equipment, the basic day-to-day organizations and systems are still back in 1950s technology.

Just walk in and visit NYC’s 33rd precinct in the East 30s, a precinct that covers a huge part of mid-Manhattan including several homeless shelters, night clubs, and probably close to 500,000 inhabitants. Yet the precinct still uses manual typewriters, walls packed with overstuffed file cabinets. Officers still wear large paper notebooks to write tickets, take reports, etc. Compare that to your local FedEx delivery guy who has the latest technology at his fingertips – and he is just tracking packages!

As with the US military, there always seems to be plenty of money for heavy armaments (tanks, planes, ships, etc.) but no money for basics. Even under businessman Bloomberg, who certainly knows the value of advanced technology, there was no visible change in the 33rd precinct’s technology. It still looks like a police station in the 1950s.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

heck, the Military/Industrial complex should give everyone AR’s! It would be a great equalizer.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

I guess neither of these people ever heard of the BoA N. Hollywood robbery, or the King riots, or… take your pick of travesties. More ultra liberal fantasy world, from people that live in the nice safe suburbs.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Not to worry – simple, inexpensive autonomous UAV’s that can deliver the payload to the coordinates, will solve this problem.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

The selection and screening process for new law enforcement officers
everywhere in America is and has always been to select persons with
experience in the military so no surprise that police organzations
everywhere in the country have a military mind set.

Posted by ChoshuShinsaku | Report as abusive

[…] There is a growing awareness that the militarization of domestic police forces is the effective declaration of war against the civilian population in the United States. The local police force‚Äôs abusive militarized response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri is sparking outrage around the world and even on capitol hill there is now a growing¬†bipartisan criticism of what is going on as reported by Reuters. […]

[…] There is a growing awareness that the militarization of domestic police forces is the effective declaration of war against the civilian population in the United States. The local police force’s abusive militarized response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri is sparking outrage around the world and even on capitol hill there is now a growing bipartisan criticism of what is going on as reported by Reuters. […]

Never go to a protests dressed for a picnic.

Posted by Celebrindan | Report as abusive

Ferguson is the result of adding military grade equipment to an HGH-fueled mindset.

Posted by Celebrindan | Report as abusive

[…] There is a growing awareness that the militarization of domestic police forces is the effective declaration of war against the civilian population in the United States. The local police force‚Äôs abusive militarized response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri is sparking outrage around the world and even on capitol hill there is now a growing¬†bipartisan criticism of what is going on as reported by¬†Reuters. […]

Happy to not live in America

Posted by thinker72 | Report as abusive

[…] There is a growing awareness that the militarization of domestic police forces is the effective declaration of war against the civilian population in the United States. The local police force‚Äôs abusive militarized response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri is sparking outrage around the world and even on capitol hill there is now a growing¬†bipartisan criticism of what is going on as reported by Reuters. […]

[…] There is a growing awareness that the militarization of domestic police forces is the effective declaration of war against the civilian population in the United States. The local police force‚Äôs abusive militarized response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri is sparking outrage around the world and even on capitol hill there is now a growing¬†bipartisan criticism of what is going on as reported by Reuters. […]