President Obama announced the federal government will no longer provide local police departments with certain military-grade equipment, such as “weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms.” There will be stricter control of federally-sanctioned military weapons, “including…drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets and shields,” although they’ll still be permitted in conjunction with special training. And by October, departments will have to seek permission from local government bodies to request advanced equipment.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said during a visit to the Camden, New Jersey, police department.
The decision comes nine months after protestors in Ferguson were met with tanks, advanced weaponry and ammunition, and local officers decked out in full military garb. Clashes between Ferguson residents and law enforcement drew international attention — and scrutiny from repressive regimes — for their resemblance to violent clashes in war-torn countries. But Ferguson wasn’t the first place where local authorities showcased their military capabilities. Indeed, Obama’s announcement comes on the heels of a report issued by a presidential task force assembled to evaluate modern-day policing, which found a pattern of police militarization nationwide. In addition to firearms, local police departments utilize explosives and pyrotechnic hardware, such as flashbang grenades, as well as riot gear and armored vehicles.
Here are three egregious examples of military-grade force used against civilians in recent years.
1. G20 Summit, 2009: In 2009, during and after world leaders met in Pittsburgh to discuss the future of the global economy, police deployed several military devices to disperse groups of protestors. One night, responding to demonstrators who broke windows and threw rocks and bottles, officers pelted the protestors with rubber pellet-filled bean bags and pepper gas. The next night, police swarmed a group of demonstrators who’d gathered for an anti-police brutality rally, and fired bean bags rounds, pepper gas, and an acoustic device that set off an ear-piercing noise. According to a University of Pittsburgh student in attendance, officers had not issued a warning to disperse before resorting to forceful measures.
2. Occupy Oakland, 2011: Police admitted to using tear gas and bean bag rounds against Occupy Oakland demonstrators in 2011, but denied using rubber bullets and flash-bang devices. Protestors subsequently took to social media to prove officers used more force than they claimed. Many pointed to two veterans who were brutalized during mass demonstrations in the city. Former Marine Scott Olsen was nearly killed when an officer shot him with a lead bean bag at close range, leaving him with a fractured skull and damage to his brain. Video later captured an officer throwing a flash-bang device at those who tried to rescue Olsen. Days later, Army veteran Kayvan Sabeghi suffered a ruptured spleen when he was brutally beaten by an officer with a baton.
3. House Raid, 2014: During a house raid last year, a SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade at a playpen and critically injured a sleeping 19-month-old. The incident left the baby with a burned face and torso, exposed ribs, and a collapsed lung — and the family with a $1 million medical bill. It was later discovered that the team, armed with assault rifles and a “no knock” warrant, raided the wrong house in search of a methamphetamine dealer. The incident served as a primary example of how police tasked with fighting drug crimes are becoming more militarized over time.
According to a congressional bill proposed days after Michael Brown was shot last August, “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 “more than $4 million worth of weapons and equipment have been transferred to police organizations in all 50 states and four territories,” as a result of one government initiative in particular: the 1033 Program. The program, which falls under the National Defense Authorization Act enacted in the 1990s, enables the federal government to equip local police agencies with military-grade weaponry and technology to combat drug crimes. However, 1033 incentivizes the use of military equipment for low-level offenses as well, because police forces are required to use the tools within a year.