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Militarization of Police

Militarization is a broad term that refers to using military-style weapons, tactics, training, uniforms, and even heavy equipment by civilian police departments. Military-grade semi-automatic weapons, armored personnel vehicles, tanks, helicopters, airplanes, and all manner of other equipment designed for use on the battlefield is now being used on American streets, against American citizens.

The type and color of the uniform is said to contribute to a citizen's perception of the officer, and some research has suggested that the uniform color can influence the wearer — with black producing aggressive tendencies, tendencies that may produce unnecessary conflict between police and the very people they serve.

Writing in 1962, James Baldwin vividly portrayed the social isolation of the policeman in the black ghetto: ". . . The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of the Police Commissioner's men, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people; they swagger about in twos and threes patrolling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to chil- dren. They represent the force of the white world, and that world's real intentions are, simply, for that world's criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club, make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt. . . .

"It is hard, on the other hand, to blame the policeman, blank, good-natured, thoughtless, and insuperably innocent, for being such a perfect representative of the people he serves. He, too, believes in good intentions and is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated — which of us has? And yet he is facing, daily and nightly, the people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it. There is no way for him not to know it: There are few things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes."

When Sir Robert Peel developed his plan for the London Metropolitan Police circa 1829 — which U.S. policing was loosely patterned after — he borrowed heavily from the military in organization and administrative structure, but he wanted there to be a clear distinction between the police and the military. To achieve that, the uniforms of the London Metropolitan police (Bobbies) were blue, in contrast to the red uniform of the day's British military, and Bobbies were forbidden to carry firearms. While the military's mission is predicated on the use of force, Peel's principles of policing emphasize crime prevention, public approval, willing cooperation of the public, and a minimal use of physical force.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as: “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” The Armed Forces and the civilian police have distinct functions: while the Armed Forces are designed to destroy the enemy, civilian police are charged with protecting civilians and keeping the peace using as little force as possible.

In the United States, the Posse Comitatus Act was passed in 1878, making it a felony for the Armed Forces to perform the law enforcement duties of the civilian police. While police officers are empowered to use force, they should use the minimal amount of force needed to control an incident, effect an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm or death.

As US policing evolved it took on a quasi-military orientation, with a hierarchical rank structure supported by distinctive uniforms, insignias, and a tangle of rules that borrowed heavily from the military. The military trappings were embraced even more as the field worked its way out from under the grip of political patronage and focused on crime control as the core mission. The increased militarization of local police departments is often attributed to two primary causes: the war on drugs and the ability of local police departments to acquire surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense. Together these have led to an increase in the number of SWAT teams nationwide, as well as a significant increase in their use.

In 1994, the US Department of Defense released a memorandum authorizing the large scale transfer of military equipment and technology to police departments. Two vital War on Drugs policing strategies are stop and frisk and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. These tactics create conditions conducive to police brutality, particularly brutality that targets Black communities. By 1997, however, 89% of cities with populations >50,000 had at least one SWAT team, as did 70% of smaller cities. SWAT teams are heavily armed with military-grade weapons.

According to the Defense Logistics Agency website, the 1033 Program was created within the Department of Defense by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997. The goal of the program was to transfer excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, with preference to be given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism requests. Although this program has been in existence for well over a decade, the relatively recent addition of large armored vehicles (MRAPs) has focused considerable attention to the practice of providing surplus military equipment to local police departments.

A study of the militarization of police departments was published by the American Civil Liberties Union (2014). It was titled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, and the executive summary includes the following: "American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight." [p. 2]

The Pentagon’s 1033 Program permits surplus US military equipment, such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), Humvees and automatic weapons from warzones in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be transferred to municipal police departments free of charge. While appropriate in a war, much of this equipment is not suited for civilian law enforcement. nder the 1033 program, local police are required to use the equipment within a year, incentivizing towns to use it in inappropriate circumstances.

MRAPs are large armored vehicles that were specifically designed to withstand improvised explosive device attacks and ambushes, and more than 12,000 were used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These vehicles were added to the Department of Defense 1033 Program in 2013, making them available to local police departments and other agencies. The deployment of MRAP vehicles to many local police departments around the country, resulted in considerable media attention and serious public objections in some areas. These objections have resulted in the return of a number of these vehicles.

Many Americans were shocked by images of police responding to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, outfitted as if going to war. In May 2015 the Obama Administration took steps to prohibit and limit the kinds of military equipment that law enforcement agencies can procure from the federal government. Law enforcement were prohibited from acquiring: ?Tracked armored vehicles; Bayonets; Grenade launchers; and Large caliber weapons and ammunition.

On 21 May 2015 US Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the Stop Militarizing Our Law Enforcement Act of 2015. This bipartisan legislation will establish limitations and create greater transparency on the transfer of surplus military-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The bill will prohibit the federal transfer of militarized equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies including, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, drones and armored vehicles transferred through the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033, U.S. Department of Justice’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Grant programs. This prohibition only applies to offensive equipment and does not prohibit the transfer of defensive equipment, such as body armor. Unlike President Obama’s recent action, this bill required the return of all equipment currently being used by law enforcement agencies that prohibited under this legislation.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2017 19:06:39 ZULU