When riots erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, police responded with billy clubs and helmets. Now, when a riot of a smaller magnitude breaks out — such as in Ferguson, Missouri — the police roll in with body armor, mine-resistant vehicles and automatic weapons.
The police’s aggressive handling of the situation has not sat well with the country. Images from the event more closely resemble an occupying force in Kabul, Afghanistan than civilian police in a Midwestern town of 21,000. As shown in Brave New Films’ latest video, this problem is not only happening in Ferguson.
Conflicting reports were made about who provoked whom and to what extent, if any, the police’s response was justified. Nevertheless, the incident has shed light on a decades-old phenomenon of police militarization and a reevaluation of the proper role of law enforcement is taking place across the country.
Over the last few decades, police tactics have evolved dramatically. The evolution is primarily a legacy of the so-called War on Drugs and, more recently, the War on Terror. In the late 1970s, there were approximately 300 SWAT raids per year. Today, there areannual estimates of 80,000 – the majority from warrants for suspected drug crimes.
Since the 1980s, surplus military equipment has been transferred to cash-strapped local law enforcement. With the passage of Program 1033 and 1122, the Department of Defense heightened the process. By the late 1990s, the Justice Department began providing grants that allowed police to buy even more equipment.
After 9/11, domestic terror threats justified further expansion of police militarization. Since 2003, local law enforcement has received $35 billion worth of grants from the newly created Department of Homeland Security. There are more than 8,000 participating agencies nationwide in these programs.
Congressman Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) has introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014. The bill seeks to curb the militarization of police by decoupling Program 1033 from the War on Drugs and limiting the transfer of military equipment that is deemed inappropriate for local law enforcement.
“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent. Before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of militarized America,” said Johnson.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and several other lawmakers led a hearing to examine these programs that enable police militarization. Alan F. Estevez, responsible for overseeing the transfer of military equipment to local police, admitted the process is difficult to track.
It is time for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to put an end to the flow of military equipment from the Pentagon to local communities. It is unnecessary for any town to be patrolled by militarized police. When our country is treated like a war zone, the police, with inadequate training, only escalate violence. It is no wonder they are so eager to use their military equipment on the people they are supposed to protect.