How Fear Led to Militarization of Community Policing

Carolyn Burstein
January 16, 2015

So many people hype the fear of crime and terrorism as an easy, quick way to rally support for more police with more weapons, tougher laws, and more prisons that they fail to realize that hyping fear means that truth suffers. Some police and sheriff departments, news media and politicians (and others) have been ignoring reports by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (Daily Kos 8/15/14) that clearly indicate the number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty is the lowest since the 1960s, despite the population of the country doubling.

It is a frenzy of fear that leads police associations and other groups to complain about being outgunned or to talk about a “war on cops” when felony killings of police have been flat since the late ‘90s and have been on a downward trajectory since the ‘70s. It’s true that guns on the street have gotten bigger, but it’s also true that being a police officer today is the safest it’s been since 1964. The most dangerous year in recent decades was 1973, when there were 134 felony killings of police officers in the line of duty. By 2012 that number had dropped to 47. Indeed, violent crime overall is down in the U.S. – it has fallen by nearly half since 1991.

Gun-related homicides and victimization rates in gun crimes, according to data from both the Pew Research Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, confirm that both these rates have decreased by about 75% in the last two decades. In fact, the violent crime rate is about to hit a century low. Despite these facts, the public’s perception of the crime problem is that it is still at an all-time high, thanks to the hyping of crime-fear.

According to Daily Kos, there are 137 SWAT raids a day in the U.S. using heavy assault weapons, and nearly 80% of them are deployed for the purpose of executing a search warrant, primarily for drugs. This is at a time when public opinion is clamoring for more treatment centers for drug addicts and less use of punishment for drug offenses. Why is this happening?

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” (June 2014) notes, “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.” Data collection, analysis and reporting have been largely nonexistent in the context of SWAT deployments, which utilize most of the military equipment. Let’s examine this issue of police militarization carefully.

In his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, journalist Radley Balko notes that since the 1960s, “law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier.” This process was strengthened with the so-called “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, as federal, state and local governments took a hard line on drug trafficking and other crime. During these years, the federal government supplied local and state police forces with some military-grade weaponry, but far worse was to come.

Unfortunately, there are multiple sources of fear operating in our society – fear of crime and fear of terror. Fear-mongering among those who have hyped the terrorist threat since 9/11 has also played a major role in militarizing our communities.

In late October 2014, an article appearing in Mother Jones described one of the largest conferences in the country focusing on the latest weaponry, training and police gear. This major arms expo, known as “Urban Shield” has been held annually since 2007 in various U.S. cities and draws police from around the world. Urban Shield is funded primarily by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but it also has more than 100 corporate sponsors. Outfitting America’s warrior cops is big business and one fueled in part by DHS grants. The money from DHS grants is earmarked for counterterrorism, but DHS specifies that once acquired, the equipment can be used for any other law enforcement purpose, from shutting down protests to serving warrants and executing home searches.

Police departments also have the option of using funds from assets seized in criminal activities so long as they will be used for some aspect of drug enforcement. Forfeiture funds are a huge pot of money – billions of dollars – and they can be (and have been) used to buy firearms.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured into counterterrorism and homeland security programs since 2001, often with sparse oversight and management. It is the overflow of these funds that has allowed many local police departments to acquire their arsenals of military weapons and equipment, including armored personnel carriers called mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, drones, flashbang grenades, M-16’s and many more, along with other more innocuous supplies, like blankets.

The vehicles and military-grade weapons have primarily been supplied through the Pentagon’s 1033 program (a provision in defense budgets that authorizes the Pentagon to transfer surplus military gear to police forces), but many have also been acquired, as we have seen, through DHS grants. Weapons acquired through DHS grants have been particularly lavish for police departments near our southern border, which can use their weapons against “illegal immigrants.”

As the New York Times notes, “The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons.” That is how we get images like the ones in Ferguson this past August, where police officers were brandishing heavy weapons and acting as an occupying force rather than the protective law enforcement entities that law-abiding citizens respect.

An ACLU article on December 2, 2014 noted that the Pentagon, through its “1033 program,” has sent over $5.2 billion worth of military equipment or about 460,000 pieces of “controlled” military equipment like assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and aircraft — now considered standard police equipment — to police departments around the country cost-free, since the program was created in 1997 (in the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act). Not only do most of the police departments lack proper training in the use of the equipment, but as long as the warrior mindset pervades, no amount of training would be sufficient to change attitudes and police culture.

Authorities often claim that the Pentagon’s “1033 program” assists local law enforcement agencies while incurring no costs for taxpayers, but that is not entirely true. All repairs, storage and maintenance of the growing stockpile of equipment have been and will continue to be paid for with tax dollars. Not only is the arms race ignited by militarizing the police wasteful and costly but, far worse, the program is dangerous to the communities involved, because of both the killing and maiming of their citizens. Numerous instances of both have been noted over the past two decades, whether in SWAT raids for drugs (where more than half have yielded no drugs, according to the ACLU) or in other instances of police raids. No complete record of police killings in the U.S. is available.

Only when law enforcement officers cease to treat American communities as war zones will they return to the original concept of policing as a “service of protection.” Only then will we have new respect for the police. No one doubts that the police have very dangerous jobs, especially in a country that has more guns than people. But this does not change the fact that law enforcement officers are called upon to protect and serve the people in this country.

It would seem that the paramilitary training necessitated by the use of military-grade equipment as well as an increasing emphasis on officer safety before all else has brought about a change in the culture of law enforcement. If police perceptions of their patrols are those of a battlefield, then citizens have additional reasons to fear for their lives when they encounter law enforcement officers. And many of us ordinary citizens are people of color and some of us are from poor and vulnerable families and need even greater protection.

In the past 15 years, the U.S. has engaged in a series of wars, military occupations, bombings, air strikes and destabilization of other countries, much of it due to a fear of terrorism. These military activities have inured a large part of the population — and of the police — to endless waves of violence. Almost half of our federal budget, one way or another, is devoted to the military. Until our federal budget begins to focus on the real needs of the people, this type of militarization we are decrying will continue.

Articles in The Guardian have pointed out that if we are concerned about helping the police prevent violence, there are better and more cost-effective ways of doing it. We already know that cities and states with higher levels of education, healthcare coverage and economic opportunity, and lower levels of poverty and income inequality have lower levels of violence/ that is where we should be investing taxpayer dollars.

President Obama, on December 1, 2014, gave his aides 120 days to develop an executive order containing recommendations that would halt a “battlefield mentality” among the police, such as requiring local review of police requests for Pentagon equipment and mandating after-action reports for incidents involving local police use of military equipment.

A few months ago, President Obama said that “one of the great things about the United States has been our ability to maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement.” In fact, our early Founders, including both Washington and Jefferson, worried that a peacetime military force would harm the republican character of our government. Wouldn’t both Washington and Jefferson be appalled if they were able to view many of our law enforcement officers today?

As the ACLU report on police militarization made clear, “Reform must be systemic; the problems of overly aggressive policing are cultural and cannot be solved by merely identifying a few “bad apples” or dismissing the problem as a few isolated incidents.” President Obama’s request of his aides to develop an executive order for his signature that fully addresses the issue of police militarization is an important step in the right direction, but more may be needed. Above all, we all (and that includes the police) need to spurn our fears of crime and terror and not exaggerate their levels. The truth is quite different than our fears, as the facts make clear.

An excessive reliance on overly aggressive approaches to policing will not end until we stop subsidizing police departments and militarizing them through federal funds. Instead, we should encourage law enforcement officers to protect all human rights and use updated, best practices (from around the world) for protecting and serving the people of this country.

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