Police Militarization

                                  If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

                                                     –Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966    

The militarization of local police departments is a public policy challenge that has been exacerbated by the Clinton Administration’s National Defense Authorization Act of FY 1997 and resulting 1033 Program, which enable the transfer of excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.  Over the last two decades, around $5 billion of military equipment has been transferred to local police departments under the 1033 Program. In addition, more than $34 million in Homeland Security grants have been made to local police departments to purchase, transport and maintain military-grade equipment.  

In large measure, the growing use of aggressive military-style tactics by large and small local law enforcement agencies tracks parallel to their acquisitions of military equipment.  Further, the acquisition of the equipment encourages local law enforcement agencies to pursue military training and tactics to use the equipment.  As evidence of these facts, SWAT teams are now deployed 50,000 to 80,000 times per year – 80% of the time to serve routine drug related warrants in communities of color, and historically with minimal record keeping and oversight.  The deployment of military tanks in Ferguson, MO was an ill-measured response to the generally peaceful protests after the Michael Brown shooting, and would not have been possible without gifts from the 1033 Program.  No police commissioner would authorize a tank purchase without federal assistance due to the sheer cost of that equipment.

Thus, law enforcement overall begins to look more like a military movement at the local level, lending to neighborhoods resembling war zones. The 2nd Amendment and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 make it clear the founders of this nation wanted to limit the ability of the military to engage in local law enforcement. The 1033 Program clearly provides a large loophole through which the intent of the founders can be circumvented.    

A few examples:

  • Police in Watertown, Connecticut, (population 22,514) recently acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle (sticker price: $733,000), designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, for $2,800. There has never been a landmine reported in Watertown, Connecticut.
  • Police in small towns in Michigan and Indiana have used the 1033 Program to acquire “MRAP armored troop carriers, night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, Humvees and dozens of M16 automatic rifles,” the South Bend Tribune reported.


Moving From Militarization to Community Policing

20/20 finds the American Civil Liberties Union’s report, When War Comes Home, to be particularly instructive on the issue and impacts of police militarization. Read it here

Executive Order 13688 issued by President Barack Obama struck the proper balance between the need for local law enforcement to protect communities and the need for citizens to be protected from the use of military equipment and tactics to enforce domestic policy. Read it here

We encourage Federal, State and Local legislatures to further codify the spirit of EO 13688 into legislation which can be adopted as law, and implement the recommendations of EO 13688

“Do Not Resist,” is a documentary film that traces the transformation of police departments across the United States into forces that often look like our Army and Marines—and all too often act like them. More here

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