A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Enraged by scenes from Ferguson, Missouri that many have analogized to a war zone, a member of Congress said Thursday he will propose a bill to roll back the militarization of U.S. police forces. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) tweeted about his proposal after days of images of local police forces in military garb, driving around in tanks, and carrying assault rifles. These photographs and stories of rampant tear gassing, rubber bullets, and other SWAT team tactics have drawn heightened focus to a trend of militarization of U.S. police forces.
Both the excess of military equipment no longer being used for combat, and the move toward a “War” on drugs over the last several decades have resulted in police departments with destructive and combative tools at their disposal.
The proposed “Stop Militarization Enforcement Act” to stop the federal government from transferring military equipment to federal and state agencies. Increasingly, the federal government has been giving its equipment away as part of several grant programs, one of which is operated through the Department of Defense. In the mid-1990s, the National Defense Authorization Act authorized transfer of these weapons to localities for “counterdrug activities.” A more recent version of the 1033 Program even gives the equipment to agencies for free so long as they use it within a year — providing further incentive for officers doing low-level police work to use these weapons for any reason.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Kara Dansky, the lead author of an ACLU report on these programs and their connection to SWAT raids, told the New Yorker that departments with these weapons are more likely to use them. “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” she said. “When the police have these weapons, they’re more likely to use them.”
Johnson said Thursday that he plans to introduce his bill next month, according to BuzzFeed, and sent a letter to Congress calling for lawmakers to “revisit a militarized America.” But Johnson has been plugging the idea at least as far back in March, when he co-wrote in an op-ed with Michael Shank announcing his plans, “Something potentially sinister is happening across America, and we should stop and take notice before it changes the character of our country forever.”
The menacing police presence in Ferguson is the most prominent display of the program’s adverse consequences, but it is far from the first one. The ACLU’s report documented the widespread use of SWAT teams — once considered “paramilitaristic” squads reserved for the most violent situations. Now, the ACLU found, some 79 percent of the 800 SWAT raids examined by the ACLU in 20 states were for for the purpose of searching someone’s home — usually for drugs. Only 7 percent of SWAT deployments were for serious situations like hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.” During these drug searches, at least 10 officers often piled into armored personnel carriers,” Dansky wrote in a blog post on the report. “They forced their way into people’s homes using military equipment like battering rams 60 percent of the time. And they were 14 times more likely to deploy flashbang grenades than during SWAT raids for other purposes.”
SWAT teams that aggressively raid individuals’ homes on suspicion of drugs have thrown a grenade into a toddler’s crib and left a hole in his chest, killed a grandfather of 12 while he was watching a baseball game, and mistakenly shot and killed a seven-year-old who was sleeping on the couch, according to stories compiled by the ACLU.
Programs like 1033 were key to this SWAT team evolution. And as explained in the proposed bill, under the 1033 program, “approximately 12,000 police organizations across the country were able to procure nearly $500 million worth of excess military merchandise including firearms, computers, helicopters, clothing, and other products, at no charge during fiscal year 2011 alone” and that “more than $4 million worth of weapons and equipment have been transferred to police organizations in all 50 states and four territories through the program.” In 2012, the program instituted a moratorium on weapons transfers after reports of missing weapons and inappropriate transfers. But in 2013, the bill notes, the program was quietly revived without any improvements.
Johnson’s op-ed said of the 1033 program, “The program currently lacks serious oversight and accountability, and it needs some parameters put in place to define what is appropriate. The legislation will ban MRAPs, other armored personnel carriers, drones, assault weapons and aircraft. Finally, the legislation will ensure that the Department of Defense undertakes an annual accounting of what’s been transferred, by whom and to whom to prevent military items from being auctioned on eBay or sold to friends.”
But as police militarization expert Radley Balko has pointed out, the Department of Defense is not the only agency that’s giving away weapons. Before the NDAA, “these Pentagon give-aways” were going on informally since the early days of the Reagan administration. And several other current programs dispense grants for military-style police equipment, including the Department of Justice Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, which allow jurisdictions to spend federal funding on weapons, and several Department of Homeland Security post-9/11 grants, which infuse the anti-terror mentality into a range of police work, according to the ACLU.