June 30, 2014

The Troubling Militarization of Police

Once known as peace officers, the trends are going in the wrong direction.

Police officers around the nation do laudable work to ensure the safety of the American public. From an age gone by – Mayberry of the 50s comes to mind – police have often been a visible sign of peace and security. It’s why they are often referred to as peace officers. Yet in recent years, police departments around the nation have been the recipients of vast amounts of retired military equipment, which is part of a troubling trend of militarization of law enforcement.

The trend began in the late 1980s, when the Defense Department started its 1033 program of recycling military equipment to local police departments. That effort comes into starker relief after the conclusion of two wars and the retirement of new items like the 45,000-pound mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle known as the MRAP. First offered to police departments in 2013, police departments have already received more than 600 MRAPs and the supply is bound to increase. The government produced 27,000 of them for $50 billion in 2007.

“There’s been a real steady increase in police stations taking advantage of this,” said Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright. “It’s a heck of a good deal. … ‘Here’s the MRAP free of charge. You’ve got to pay for maintenance and gas, but other than that we’ll take care of the rest.’”

Just one of hundreds of such small towns, Washington, Iowa – population 8,000 with a police department of 12 officers – just received a free MRAP. Robert Shellmyer, a 78-year-old city councilman for the small town, was the lone vote against it. “Goodness, this is overkill,” he said.

How much overkill? The ACLU released a report focusing on the details of more than 800 SWAT raids in 20 states, as well as the acquisition of military equipment. It’s certainly fair to consider the source, as the ACLU is often on the wrong side of issues. But we find many of the details in keeping with clear trends.

“We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs,” said Kara Dansky, Senior Counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice. In its press release, the ACLU added, “The report documents multiple tragedies caused by police carrying out needless SWAT raids, including a 26-year-old mother shot with her child in her arms and a 19-month-old baby critically injured when a flashbang grenade landed in his crib.”

According to Yahoo! News, “The ACLU report found that 46 civilians were injured in 818 SWAT raids over two years in 11 states. Children were present in the home in 14 percent of the raids the group studied. Sixty percent of the time, police had a search warrant for a drug offense. Only 7 percent of the SWAT deployments the ACLU studied were for hostage or active shooter scenarios.” In other words, this is largely about the “war on drugs.”

None of this is to say there aren’t legitimate concerns for officers who seek protection from violent criminals. Our culture has devolved in dangerous ways and law enforcement officers are on the front lines. But this escalation and war-like view of civilian law enforcement is troubling for those who love Liberty.

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