President Barak Obama recently proposed a $263 million federal spending package, $75 million of which would be used to fund putting body cameras on 50,000 police officers around the country. The remaining funds would be used to expand police training and reform programs in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri police officer who fatally shot unarmed Michael Brown back on August 9th, 2014. The grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, has led to protests around the country.
With the chaos that followed the Michael Brown killing, local and state police used military grade armored vehicles and weapons to halt or disperse local demonstrations, even those that were peaceful. Police bureaus around the country have employed the use of similar military grade weapons, body armor and mine-resistant armored vehicles during demonstrations and legal, non-violent protests. After the Michael Brown shooting in August, Obama ordered a review of federal programs that supply state and local police agencies with military grade weapons and vehicles, amid growing concern for their use on citizens domestically.
After the review, Obama ordered that the federal programs who equip local law enforcement agencies must work together with local law enforcement and concerned civil liberties groups to recommend changes. Five federal agencies have been authorized by Congress to supply local law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment and vehicles: The Department of Justice, Homeland Security, The Defense Department, the Treasury and the Office of National Drug Control.
According to a CBS News story, in the early 1990′s, surplus military grade weapons were supplied to local law enforcement to combat the drug trade in the U.S. In the early 2000′s, fears of domestic terrorism gave rise to an increase in both military gear and training for state and federal law enforcement agencies. Police officers and SWAT teams trained alongside soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight the war on terror. According to an ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) report, the amount of goods transferred through military surplus to local law enforcement agencies increased from $1 million in the early 1990′s, to over $450 million in 2013. One of the surplus military vehicles that has been supplied across the country is the MRAP vehicle (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected). This vehicle is designed to protect occupants from roadside mines and rocket/grenade attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, 610 MRAP’s have been distributed to law enforcement agencies across the country, including at least 9 in Los Angeles County. All 610 of them were distributed after August of 2013.
Michael Downing, the LAPD Deputy Chief who also heads the department’s counterterrorism and special operations bureau, argues that police are dealing with “an adversary who is more sophisticated, more tactically trained.” He went on to support paramilitary policing by stating that, “In police work there are times we have to become soldiers and control through force and fear… But we have to come back to being a public servant as quick as we can to establish that normality and that ethical stature with communities, because they’re the ones who give us the authority to do our police work.”
Is this the type of military equipment we want our local police forces to have? Should local police bureaus have access to these kinds of weapons and equipment, to be used against American citizens? These questions require a healthy public debate about how we want our local police departments to enforce the law.
Download the ACLU’s PDF, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police” here
Read the CBS News story on Obama’s request for $75 million for police body cameras
Read the Oregonian story on Obama asking for federal support for body cameras on police officers, and the lack of executive support in disallowing military grade weapons and vehicles to be used by local law enforcement agencies.