Militarizing Law Enforcement Deserves Careful Scrutiny
We should be very hesitant to turn local police into a paramilitary force to be directed by partisan political interests.
This week, President Donald Trump rescinded the 2015 Obama executive order restricting the use of the federal “1033” program, named after the section of the National Defense Authorization Act which created it, which gives excess military equipment to state and local law enforcement. The program was created in the late 1980s, and for decades has provided local law enforcement with surplus military equipment such as uniforms, shields, ammunition, Kevlar vests, helmets, and first responder and rescue equipment.
Over time the list has expanded to include bayonets, grenade launchers, military-grade rifles, armored personnel carriers and MRAPs (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle, a 45,000 pound armored behemoth).
Barack Obama’s EO came in the aftermath of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of Michael Brown, a young black man who attacked a white officer shortly after robbing a convenience store. Millions of Americans witnessed the sight of domestic law enforcement outfitted with military gear doing battle with rioters who were assaulting innocent bystanders, looting and destroying businesses, setting cars on fire, and throwing Molotov cocktails at police.
In announcing the reinstatement of the program, President Trump stated, “Assets that would otherwise be scrapped can be repurposed to help state, local, and tribal law enforcement better protect public safety and reduce crime.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions also commented, saying, “President Trump is serious about this mission. He is doing all he can to restore law and order and support our police across America … [making] it easier to protect yourselves and your communities.”
There are valid arguments to be made by both sides regarding the wisdom of this decision.
As The Daily Signal’s John Malcolm notes, “While there have been occasions where law enforcement officials have overreacted and have unwittingly inflamed a situation, it is also true that there are occasions where law enforcement authorities need such equipment in order to protect the public — for instance, during terrorist attacks, search and rescue operations, or in the wake of natural disasters. Equipment provided through this program is currently being deployed in Texas to save lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Such equipment also resulted in lives saved during police operations in response to the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino in 2015 and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016.”
Additionally, according to one recent study titled “Police Officer on the Frontline or a Soldier? The Effect of Police Militarization on Crime,” a 10% increase military equipment/supplies in a community leads to a decrease of 5.9 crimes per 100,000 residents, and fewer complaints about crime from local citizens.
On the other hand, there is evidence that the militarization of local police has led to an increase in the use of force, and when law enforcement is armed with equipment intended to combat terrorists and enemy combatants, the results can be catastrophic.
As Philip Wegmann of the Washington Examiner points out, “Tricking out local cops leads to increased and unnecessary policing. When violent crime was 63 percent higher than today in 1980, there were an average of three SWAT raids per day in the entire country. Today, with crime way down, there are now about 120 SWAT raids daily.”
One might argue that crime is down because of the increased raids, but still, that statistic is astounding.
These raids are often unnecessary and sometimes deadly, resulting, for example, in a 26-year-old mother being shot while holding her baby, and a 19-month-old toddler severely wounded when a SWAT agent threw a flash/bang grenade in his crib. The tools and tactics of the War on Drugs have long been of dubious constitutional merit (as with asset forfeiture and warrantless raids), so it is all the more concerning that only 7% of all SWAT deployments being in hostage or active shooter situations, with far more being drug-related raids, according to one study.
It seems hypocritical for Trump’s critics on the Left to object to providing American law enforcement with some of the same equipment Obama sold to Mexican drug cartels, but despite such hypocrisy, this is an issue that deserves thoughtful consideration.
The Posse Comitatus Act, signed into law in 1878 by Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes to end the military occupation of the Southern states during Reconstruction, bans the use of the military for law enforcement purposes. Yet it seems obvious the law becomes functionally repealed when local law enforcement is outfitted and trained with the same equipment used by the military to neutralize terrorists and insurgents in places like Fallujah and Mosul.
We live in the United States of America, not Iraq or Afghanistan, and not Eastern Europe of, well, pick a decade. While our law enforcement deserves every available peace-keeping tool, we should be very hesitant to turn them into a paramilitary force to be directed by partisan political interests.
While progressive Democrats are almost always favor expansion of government power and force, Liberty-minded people should be wary. As Republican Senator Rand Paul (KY) correctly noted, “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.”
Let’s equip our law enforcement officers to keep the peace, wage rescue operations, and deal with riots like those Ferguson and Charlottesville. But let’s think twice, and then a few more times, before we equip our peace officers for domestic warfare.