Obama’s review of police militarization is an important step.
One bullet (in his shirt pocket) was enough for TV’s Deputy Barney Fife, but apparently not for thousands of small-town police officers in today’s America, where cops in some departments come fully loaded for combat.
Since 2006, the Defense Department has equipped local police with 435 armored vehicles, 432 mine-resistant trucks, 533 aircraft, 93,763 machine guns and 200,000 ammunition clips, not to mention Kevlar helmets, grenades and grenade launchers, body armor, night-vision goggles, silencers, camouflage outfits and the rest of the kit needed to transform police departments, many of them rural or suburban, into fearsome-looking military units.
The discomforting images of heavily armed police facing down demonstrators in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month led President Obama to order a comprehensive review of policies aimed at militarizing local police. He was right to do so. Barney Fife may have been a fictional character, but now, with all the scary toys available to small-town cops, the temptation to play soldier is all too real — and the potential consequences all too serious.
A show of force on the streets of Kabul doesn’t translate well to our own communities. Especially in impoverished minority neighborhoods, squads of largely white paramilitary occupiers, their weapons pointed into crowds, come across as provocateurs, not peacemakers.
“This kind of response by police has become the problem instead of the solution,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who will hold congressional hearings next month as the White House begins its inquiry. Among the questions: How much weaponry has been fed to local police directly by the Pentagon or through Homeland Security grants? Which jurisdictions actually need military hardware and which do not? Are local officers properly trained to use military equipment? When is it smart to deploy this equipment and when is it not?
Of special interest is the Pentagon’s Section 1033 program launched by Congress in 1990. That program donates surplus military hardware to nearly every local jurisdiction that wants it — $1 million worth in 1990, $450 million in 2013 and $4.3 billion overall since the mid-1990s.
Minnesota police agencies in 84 counties have received $10 million in military gear under the program, including 3,300 weapons and 40 tactical vehicles, according to a New York Times analysis of Pentagon data. Police forces in Hubbard, Itasca, Douglas, Kandiyohi, Waseca, Goodhue, Pine and Benton counties, for example, now have armored vehicles. Forces in Mille Lacs, Morrison, Mahnomen and Itasca counties have grenade launchers. And police in Cottonwood County, population 11,000, have 35 assault rifles.
As the Star Tribune’s Mark Brunswick reported Aug. 17, the three-officer department in the town of Royalton (population 1,242) isn’t quite sure what to do with the grenade launcher it received from another agency. It’s now stored in the department’s gun safe.
“It’s just figuring out what to do with it,” Chief Adam Gunderson told Brunswick. “The government doesn’t really want it back.”
Indeed, the trend has generated hundreds of SWAT teams in rural settings, including some that take on questionable missions. In 2006, paramilitary units in Louisiana raided a nightclub as part of a liquor inspection. In 2010, officers in SWAT gear swooped into Florida barber shops to investigate illegal haircutting. More recently, police in New Hampshire secured a massive armored vehicle to help protect the local pumpkin festival.
The trend toward turning cops into soldiers took off in the 1980s as part of a war on drugs, but escalated considerably after 9/11 when local police were seen as important cogs in the war on terror. Apart from the Pentagon’s surplus giveaway program, Washington has sent $34 billion in grants to state and local law enforcement agencies since 2001.
Let’s be clear: Police forces, large and small, do heroic work every day. Officers deserve thanks and admiration. Most departments, even those that have overloaded their armories with military gear, have acted responsibly. There are, indeed, times and places for SWAT operations, although it’s hard to justify the firepower that many smaller departments have accumulated.
There should be stricter assessments of which police agencies qualify for military gear and a better understanding of its proper use. There’s also a need to keep better track of donated equipment that could, under current, slack procedures, fall into the wrong hands. Last year, a North Carolina official pleaded guilty to diverting military assault rifles intended for police use to private buyers on eBay. He had made $30,000.
A bill offered by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., aims to accomplish those goals. If it passes, Barney Fife’s request for an assault helicopter might be denied.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.