A bumper sticker bearing the U.S. Marine Corps logo was placed on a truck’s windshield. It said, “When it absolutely must be destroyed overnight.” That line got me thinking about policing—and the vastly different roles between the U.S. military and the nation’s civilian police forces.
It is the goal of military to conquer a country’s enemies. The U.S. military has engaged in many misbegotten exercises that try build nations rather than destroy them, but they rarely go as planned. This is because the military force does not have enough training to establish courts or hold elections. The bumper sticker might be mildly amusing if they were.
Since the start of the drug war in the 1980s and following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our nation has increasingly blurred the distinction between the military and domestic police departments. The local police force trains their officers as though they were patrolling Baghdad’s streets, then outfits them with the most recent war equipment.
This is a dangerous trend that partially explains why there were so many protests against national police officers. A Department of Justice report following a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, found that officers “demand compliance even when they lack legal authority” and “interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.”
Americans do not like being treated as though they live under occupation. Not all police officers or departments operate that way, but it’s common enough—and that authoritarian approach is at odds with the policing we should expect in a democratic society.
“The streets of America are not some far-off battlefield, and our police are not an occupying force,” the Project on Government Oversight explains. The military is a force that fights foreign enemies. This requires special weapons, equipment, and tactics. The domestic police exist to defend individuals and preserve the Constitutional rights each American has.
That seems obvious, and yet the Pentagon’s 1033 program has sent $1.5 billion in decommissioned military hardware—firearms, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and aircraft—to local departments. I once spoke with the head of an agency that enforces laws. He refused to give such equipment as he believed his officers wouldn’t be able to handle them.
The Defense Logistics Agency seems proud of the program, as its website features stories of Texas police who deployed an MRAP during a SWAT raid and a Michigan department that used a personnel carrier to deal with dam breaks. Although no one is offended by the use of equipment in times of natural disasters some departments do use military vehicles for basic warrants.
Congress was given the chance last month to limit this program. But the House of Representatives rejected, on a 198-231 vote, an amendment to a national defense authorization bill that would have limited these 1033 equipment transfers. This was an appropriate proposal, given the fact that Afghanistan’s pullback means there will be more equipment surplus. Joe Biden, inexplicably, has not supported even slight restrictions to the 1033 program. This is similar to the previous Trump administration.
The amendment was reasonable. It would have banned the transport of “controlled firearms,” ammunition, bayonets or grenade-launchers, grenades, grenades, explosives (including stun/flash bang), and MRAPs. Although I don’t understand why sheriff’s and local police departments require grenade launchers or weaponized drones in their operations, please excuse me for being old-fashioned.
“Our neighborhoods need to be protected, but Americans and our founding fathers opposed blurring the line between police and the military,” said sponsor Rep. Hank Johnson (D–Ga.). Conservative Rep. Tom McClintock (R–Calif.) This amendment was also co-sponsored by Tom McClintock, a conservative Rep. from California. However, few other Republicans recognized the dangers of an overly militarized police force—or perhaps they are too frightened of police unions to do the right thing.
Although police agencies may believe that they require military equipment in the event of terrorist attacks or attempts by drug gangs to take down their facilities, these are very rare events. Most equipment is utilized in everyday police work. These are not just excuses that departments have for purchasing “cool” gear. They are free to the departments, but they often impose maintenance burdens. The cost of a MRAP engine overhaul is something I cannot imagine.
Recent peer-reviewed studies show that the use of such equipment doesn’t reduce crime or protect officers. Instead, military cosplay makes officers see citizens as subject to them, raises their dangers, and encourages cops take unnecessary aggressive actions during protests.
The police are often seen as antagonistic to the people they serve. That’s not surprising given that police are meant to build bridges within their communities—not destroy them.
This column appeared in The Orange County Register for the first time.