On August 28, the Trump administration unveiled a new plan to roll back limits President Obama had placed in 2015 on the controversial 1033 program, which provides local law enforcement agencies and even some campus and school police with surplus military gear. Obama issued an executive order to end the program, which had provided law enforcement agencies with everything from armored vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and camouflage uniforms.
In doing so, Obama noted the militarized response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown, where police responded to nonviolent protesters in armored vehicles, riot gear, and with pepper spray, and previously to the use of armored vehicles and military gear by police during the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Obama said, “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them. It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”
Speaking in support of the policy change at the annual conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions applauded the change, asserting (incorrectly) that the U.S is facing an increase in violent crime. He defended the move by claiming that family discipline has eroded as well, another claim that is unsupported. Sessions received multiple standing ovations for his speech from the FOP. A document describing the policy shift says that it “sends the message that we care more about public safety than about how a piece of equipment looks, especially when that equipment has been shown to reduce crime, reduce complaints against and assaults on police, and make officers more effective.” Again, these claims may sound good to the law-and-order crowd, but they are unsubstantiated by data.
Civil rights groups blasted the policy shift, saying the Obama-era guidelines were critical to rebuilding trust between police and communities of color. Vanita Gupta, former head of the DOJ’s civil rights division under President Obama and now leader of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, said, “These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality. Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone.”
Congress originally launched 1033 program in 1990 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the Defense Department to transfer surplus hardware and equipment to state and local law enforcement, allegedly to assist with “counter-drug activities.”
Since the 1990s, more than $5.4 billion worth of gear and machinery has been transferred to various law enforcement agencies. Some agencies have made out with a huge booty: Brevard County, Florida, scored big, acquiring nearly $7 million worth of equipment, including 13 helicopters, two armored personnel carriers, and 246 assault rifles. Five Indiana universities have armed their university police officers with military leftovers, including body armor, assault rifles, and tanks, while campus police at Ohio State University now own an MRAP. In all, 120 colleges and universities have acquired military equipment and garb via the 1033 program. In 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District, amidst outcry from parents, announced that it would return the three grenade launchers it had acquired but would keep its armored personnel carrier and 61 assault rifles. Some 600 law enforcement agencies have received mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), which are designed to survive roadside bombs. Additionally, local governments have received approximately $34 billion in grants from the Department of Homeland Security to buy their own military equipment from private suppliers. Thus the total financial cost of police militarization is approximately $39 billion, which is more than the entire defense budget of Germany.
1033 was merely a continuation of the militarization of policing, which started with the development of Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams after the Watts riots in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Although originally created to address hostage situations, sniper shootings and violent unrest, since the early 1980s the use of SWAT teams has expanded dramatically. Between 1985 and 1995, there was a 48 percent increase in the number of SWAT teams and an astounding 1,500 percent increase in deployments between 1980 and 2000. SWAT teams are most frequently deployed to conduct search and arrest warrants related to drug cases, with some 50,000 deployments in 2015, yet in few cases do they discover actual serious criminal activity. By the late 1990s, 89 percent of large police departments (those serving at least 50,000 civilians) had a police paramilitary unit (PPU), approximately double the number that did in the 1980s. Experts say that the military-style battle dress uniforms (BDUs) and the military-style stress training often provided in police academies, creates an “us versus them” mentality that, coupled with the surplus gear, can very easily lead officers to develop a war-making, not peacekeeping, philosophy of policing. This is all despite federal law that prohibits the military from being deployed against U.S citizens.
The military is designed to use maximum force; police should use as little as is needed to do their work and to protect themselves. There should remain no doubt that training police to act like the military, don military gear, and arm themselves with the tools of an occupying force will do nothing but increase fear and tensions and reduce the likelihood that citizens will want to cooperate with law enforcement. We should put pressure on the Trump administration to reconsider this foolish reinstatement of the 1033 program before another Ferguson happens.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.