• Under pressure from locals, police departments across America start returning military hardware to Army.
By Keith Johnson —
Have Americans finally grown tired of watching their local peace officers transform into battle-ready soldiers?
Throughout the nation, fed-up townsfolk are sounding off against the military occupation of their neighborhood streets, and some are even forcing their community leaders to send back tons of Army-grade hardware gifted to them by the federal government.
This long overdue trend is most noticeable on the West Coast, where several law enforcement agencies have recently weighed the benefits of overwhelming force against the consequences of overwhelming popular dissent.
Late last month, for instance, residents in Davis, California pressured their city council members to return a $700,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle that had been awarded to them through a grant from the Department of Defense (DoD).
“I would like to say I do not suggest you take this vehicle and send it out of Davis, I demand it. I demand it!” cried one angry resident during a recent “Tank the Tank” protest demonstration.
In San Jose, Calif., the police department (SJPD) didn’t even wait for a cue from their city leadership before taking it upon themselves to get rid of the 15-ton MRAP they received from the Pentagon earlier in the year.
“We thought about this a lot,” said SJPD spokeswoman Sergeant Heather Randol to local media outlet San Jose Inside. “We thought about ways to change the appearance, to make it look less like a military vehicle. We did some outreach to our citizen advisory board. We took into account some of the news coverage across the country, the public’s fears of police militarization. We had to weigh the consequences.”
In a similar move, the San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) Police Department ditched the MRAP they planned to use in the event of an “active shooter” incident out of concern for breaching the public’s trust.
“Some members of our community are not comfortable with the district having this vehicle,” said SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten. “If any part of our community is not comfortable with it, we cannot be comfortable with it.”
Rolling arsenals aren’t the only weapons being sent back. On September 16, the Los Angeles School Police Department, serving the nation’s second largest school system, announced that it would be returning three grenade launchers acquired from the DoD fearing that the presence of such weapons would only “intensify existing tensions” on campus.
Although the acquisition of intimidating military weaponry was once the budding trend among police departments of all sizes, it has of late become a public relations disaster due, in large part, to widespread criticism of the paramilitary response to race riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action,” said Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) on September 18 to the Liberty Political Action Conference in Alexandria, Virginia. “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.”
While some communities are voluntarily returning unwanted military hardware, others may soon have no say in the matter. Due to heightened concerns of abuse, the Pentagon is now being pressured to consult with the Department of Justice (DoJ) on all applications for military hardware to ensure that dangerous weapons do not fall into the hands of corrupt law enforcement agencies.
Currently, police departments are not disqualified from receiving military grade weaponry from the Pentagon even if they are under investigation for civil rights violations. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, received multiple shipments of free assault rifles at the same time it was under the watch of a federal monitor for excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches and seizures.
Speaking on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, attorney Peter Bibring recently told the Associated Press that this kind of oversight can no longer be tolerated.
“One arm of the federal government is restricting the departments based on a history of constitutional violations, and the other arm is feeding them heavy weapons,” he said. “That’s absurd.”
Though abuse is the leading concern among those seeking to restrict local police access to military weaponry, negligence runs a close second. According to an investigative report on “Fusion.net,” “184 state and local police departments have been suspended from the Pentagon’s ‘1033 program’ for missing weapons or failure to comply with other guidelines.”
The United States military’s “Excess Property Program,” also known as the 1033 Program, gives police departments access to surplus military equipment at no cost to local communities, which may seem like a good thing—since American taxpayers have already paid for it.
The Fusion report goes on to list assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and two Humvees among the missing items. Unfortunately, their investigation was unable to determine whether that equipment had been lost, stolen or sold on the black market.
Any way you look at it, the militarization of local police has proven to be a dismal failure. If left in the hands of the feds to correct the mistake they created, it’s doubtful there will be any meaningful reforms. It’s up to the American to make it known that they want to see peace officers patrolling their streets not warriors marching into battle.
Keith Johnson is a writer based in Tennessee. He can be contacted at [email protected].