Rep. Hank Johnson sent a “Dear Colleague” letter Thursday morning alerting lawmakers that he is putting forward the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. The action comes in the wake of a policeman shooting an unarmed black man that has created an increasingly tense relationship between the police and the city’s largely African-American population. The response of local police, including the use of tear gas on protesters, has been criticized as overly aggressive.The program began as an amendment to the 1996 military spending bill. It's called "1033" for the section of the bill where it is included. It was meant at first to supply basic needs. After the 9/11 attacks and the massive spending by the Pentagon to respond, the military soon had massive amounts of surplus war material. And that meant more to give away. Thanks to 1033, local police agencies—some serving populations as small as 5,000—now have armored vehicles, machine guns, night-vision equipment, tactical vests and bullet-resistant shields, ballistic helmets, silencers, and aircrafts, which includes a pilotless drone in Montgomery County, Texas. Police departments began to look more like invading armies than units designed to serve and protect, as if they were putting down insurrection in Fallujah as opposed to supposedly keeping the peace in Ferguson.
“Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson wrote. “Unfortunately, due to a Department of Defense (DOD) Program that transfers surplus DOD equipment to state and local law enforcement, our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces.”
Further, Johnson said the legislation would “end the free transfers of certain aggressive military equipment to local law enforcement and ensure that all equipment can be accounted for."
As a consequence, police began acting ever more like invading armies, too. Vast numbers of military-style raids took place. One report cited by Bill Moyers & Co. counted 80,000 of these. When Occupy Wall Street and sister organizations emerged three years ago, some militarized police departments dressed in riot gear and camouflage and deployed aggressive tactics including tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to control protesters.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which supports Johnson's proposed legislation, published a 97-page report in June this year: "War Comes Home—The Excessive Militarization of American Policing."
You can read about it below the orange tendrils of tear gas smoke.
Among the ACLU's findings:
1. Policing—particularly through the use of paramilitary teams—in the United States today has become excessively militarized, mainly through federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield. For example, the ACLU documented a total of 15,054 items of battle uniforms or personal protective equipment received by 63 responding agencies during the relevant time period, and it is estimated that 500 law enforcement agencies have received Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles built to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program.Welcome as it is, Johnson's legislation is just a start on what needs to be done.
2. The militarization of policing in the United States has occurred with almost no public oversight. Not a single law enforcement agency in this investigation provided records containing all of the information that the ACLU believes is necessary to undertake a thorough examination of police militarization. Some agencies provided records that were nearly totally lacking in important information. Agencies that monitor and provide oversight over the militarization of policing are virtually nonexistent. [...]
4. The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color; when paramilitary tactics were used in drug searches, the primary targets were people of color, whereas when paramilitary tactics were used in hostage or barricade scenarios, the primary targets were white. Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities. Of the deployments in which all the people impacted were minorities, 68 percent were in drug cases, and 61 percent of all the people impacted by SWAT raids in drug cases were minorities. In addition, the incidents we studied revealed stark, often extreme, racial disparities in the use of SWAT locally, especially in cases involving search warrants.