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Recycling Weapons of War

News & Features | September 6, 2014

The Militarization of American Cops

Nearly a month has passed since the events in Ferguson, MO and, at long last, the conversation over police militarization has exploded onto the national stage. In the wake of the aggressive response by Missouri State Troopers and St. Louis county police to Ferguson protestors, senators have now begun probing into the federal policies that have perpetuated a cycle of arming local police forces with military-grade weapons. On September 9th, legislators at a Senate hearing discussed the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 1033 policy, which permits the flow of billions of dollars of surplus military equipment and funding to local police departments. As the White House and Senate began investigating the oversight and management of police militarization policies, it became clear that the DoD, in fact, performs no audits and specifies no restrictions regarding the use of military weapons by local police departments.

At the hearing, DoD Principal Deputy Alan Estevez admitted that the Department of Defense conducts no audits or follow-ups whatsoever after deploying this equipment to local police force coordinators. “We don’t have the capability of monitoring how the equipment that we have provided is used,” said Deputy Estevez. “Speaking from the Department of

Though lacking formal expertise in police enforcement, Deputy Estevez neglects to recognize the fact that the DoD has a responsibility to outline how various local police departments should use these military weapons. At the hearing, representatives of the Department of Homeland Security echoed Estevez’s point that the police militarization program is a necessary measure for managing certain threats to the state regardless of the program’s lack of federal oversight.

Brian E. Kamoie, Senior Homeland Security Grant Administrator, insisted that the role that police militarization played in the events following the Boston Marathon bombings was critical to restoring safety. “Grant funds provided to Massachusetts and to Boston saved lives and restored and ensured public safety in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Kamoie.

His claim directly linked the success of capturing Dzhokhar Tzarnev to the use of military-grade equipment, but was quickly rejected by senators in the hearing. “Tsarnev was found because a man went out to check his boat because he saw the end of it up,” retorted Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), “Didn’t have anything to do with money we have spent.”

What becomes glaringly clear in the wake of this Senate hearing is the extent to which supporters of the DoD 1033 Policy abandon their responsibility for the weapons they deploy to local police officers. Without a federal system outlining and enforcing restrictions on how police enforcement can use military-grade weapons, police departments have no strict set of rules to which they are beholden. The consequences of this active unaccountability raised serious concerns among many senators present at the hearing.

“How do you determine what federal supply classes are available to be transferred?” asked a concerned Sen. Coburn. “How did we ever get to the point that we decided that states need certain types of [military-grade equipment]?”

Estevez and other DoD representatives failed to answer this fundamental question about the origins and development of their own policy. Legislation arming police forces with militaristic weaponry has a complex history in the U.S. The cycle of police militarization policies is deeply tied to race issues similar to those plaguing Ferguson—issues that legislators overlooked back then as well as during the recent senate debate.

One of the first major developments in the process of police militarization was the creation of the . SWAT teams first emerged in the second half of the 1960s, primarily in response to the Watts Riots in southern Los Angeles, which, like the events transpiring in Ferguson, were fueled by the breaking of racialized tensions and civil unrest. By the close of the 1960s, two of the first SWAT units, of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department, had been formed.

The expansion of SWAT units found new purpose in Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. Newly trained units rapidly became the preferred tool of enforcement for this national war against drugs. Federal funding exploded, streaming into local police forces that became increasingly less limited to big cities. Legislation followed suit, granting authorities broader jurisdiction to execute no-knock warrants as officers searched for drugs. As the War on Drugs has become the War on Terror, the problematic evolution of the SWAT team has grown to small towns, still with no attempts by the federal government to construct checks and audits. Police forces in small towns like Keene, NH now have $350,000 armored vehicles built to withstand the types of IED devices used during the Iraq War. In Ferguson, the nation watched as St. Louis County Police and Missouri State Troopers exhibited the ramifications of martial police officers not beholden to any specified federal rules and oversight.

“I think most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis being transformed…into a war zone, complete with camouflage, tear gas, rubber bullets, armored vehicles, and laser sights on assault weapons,” stated Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri at the Senate’s homeland-security hearing. “I am confident that militarizing policing tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of first amendment rights of free speech and free assembly.” Senator McCaskill plead for a better public policy that will both protect American citizens’ constitutional freedoms and ensure the safety of the uniformed forces sworn to protect the communities they serve.

Nevertheless, senators concluded the meeting still unclear as to how to probe into this stack of legislation and fix the problem. What’s more, they were skeptical about the extent to which federal officials like DoD Principal Deputy Estevez and Homeland Security Administrator Kamoie will participate in this investigation and cooperate proactively in helping enact reforms to the 1033 policy. Estevez and Kamoie’s lackadaisical defense and disturbing ambivalence towards their accountability suggest that their cooperation in these reform attempts will be minimal—raising unsettling questions and the future of police militarization.  Perhaps most importantly, to what extent has the federal government’s policy of arming local police forces with military-grade weapons created a demand by local police forces for those weapons? Without oversight, regulation, and accountability, what kind of police force are we building in small towns and big cities across America?

In a recent interview with Tufts University Anthropology Professor Rosalind Shaw, she suggests that we are in fact constructing a police force that increasingly acts like a military. “One of the features of militarization as a social and cultural process is that it spreads far beyond military institutions, into the fabric of everyday life. Apparently unconnected institutions—like the police—start to align with military values, practices, and objectives,” argued Shaw, Department Chair of Anthropology at Tufts University. “Over the past 13 years, the War on Terror has produced a massive militarization of the economy, institutions, and cultural forms in the US, of which the distribution of military arms and equipment to the police, and the lethal consequences for those in groups that are already treated as internal ‘threats,’ is the latest example.”

At a legislative level, attempts to fix this cycle of mass militarization will be difficult. As Kamoie and Estevez veil the transparency of the police militarization program, it is unclear why they still insist on asserting that the DoD and Department of Homeland Security are deploying what these representatives claim are effective means of protecting American citizens. Their remains an enormous gap between what the American people feel are reasonable methods of police protection and what DoD and Homeland Security representatives claim are necessary. Meanwhile, the hearing uncovered that senators, while dedicated to achieving reform, are at a loss when it comes to closing this gap. How can these concerned legislators disrupt the cycle of police militarization and its consequences? The confusing and unproductive Senate hearing augurs poorly for arriving at any clear answer. In circumstances that these weapons fill a legitimate need, it must be the view not only of the county sheriff and federal government but also that of academics, psychologists, and, by and large, the American people that their use is appropriate. In the meantime, American citizens are not standing idle. Their engagement in this issue will prove vital in drawing a clear line between our military and our police forces.