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Federal Programs Turning Local Police Into Warrior-Cops

Ferguson, Missouri should serve as a wake up call relating to the evolution of our local police departments into extensions of the federal government.  Once agencies primarily tasked with protecting the community, they have intertwined with and become increasingly dependent on the federal government, getting funding and equipment through asset forfeiture, gifts and grants from the federal government.

The result is militarized police forces oriented to fighting the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror,” not on community policing.

The grants through the federal government has created a paramilitary force outfitted with war gear from Iraq and Afghanistan. Through the DoD 1033 military surplus program military hardware used in wars are transferred to local and state police. Not only that, training with the US military and even foreign militaries are funded through these programs

According to a New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo, 435 armored vehicles, 44,900 nightvision goggles, 535 planes or helicopters, 93,763 machine guns, and 180,718 magazines have been transferred to local and state police departments across the nation.

Local and state police should be interacting with the community they are policing, and creating an atmosphere of being able to go to a police officer for help. Federal programs are breaking that connection and are directly forming an offensive paramilitary force against a people. The federal programs delude local and state police that they need this military equipment or they will die, and train cops to believe in maintaining “order” rather than protecting the rights of the people.

In a city in Wisconsin whose violent crime rate is a third of the national average, Chief Wilkinson said he was not interested in militarizing Neenah. But officers are shot, even in small towns, he argued. If there were an affordable way to protect his people without the new truck, he would do it.

“I hate having our community divided over a law enforcement issue like this. But we are,” he said. “It drives me to my knees in prayer for the safety of this community every day. And it convinced me that this was the right thing for our community.”

Contrary to the rational offered for receiving military equipment, Neenah, Wisconsin’s highest crime rates involve burglaries and thefts, not counter-terrorism or murder.

Buying this equipment seems to be feeding the ego rather impacting real crime statistics in America’s towns and cities. In fact, the push to transfer DoD arms and vehicles, flows from the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs.” Police have even used the imaginary threat of Americans starting an uprising and attacking the government with tactics like improvised explosive devices (IED’s).

In the Indianapolis suburbs, officers said they needed a mine-resistant vehicle to protect against a possible attack by veterans returning from war.

“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs. Sergeant Downing did not return a message seeking comment.

Speculation has driven police departments to obtain gear from the DoD catalog of approved lethal and non-lethal, peace spreading devices. We see the end-result in Ferguson, Mo.? Even so, police armed to the teeth with M16′s, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP), long-range acoustic devices, and rubber bullets were unable to beat the peace into protesters for days.

The only thing the armament did provide is an illusion of impunity. Rubber bullets and sound equipment temporarily dispersed peaceful protestors, but did not eliminate them. Neither did arresting journalists or breaking down or destroying recording equipment. Most of all police violating people’s property rights by forcing them out of their backyard and into their house did not de-escalate any tension. No-fly zones and barricading entrances and exits of the city did not achieve an end to the conflict.

Peace is not achieved by eliminating conflict. It is achieved by seeking justice. We need to rethink how we want our police to act in our communities. Instead we need the local and state tax money used for police services to go back to the community and not against the community. Ending the federal transfer of military hardware and training is just a first step in forming the type of police officers we want in our community.

Radley Balko showed in a recent article that are different policing techniques and results. He interviewed former Washington D.C. police chief Jerry Wilson, who served during the turbulent period of the 1960s.

In general, instead of the usual brute force and reactionary policing that tended to pit cops against citizens—both criminal and otherwise—Wilson believed that cops were more effective when they were welcomed and respected in the neighborhoods they patrolled. “The use of violence,” he told Time in 1970, “is not the job of police officers.”

Balko draws an important conclusion, “Their [police’s] primary function isn’t to impose order, but to preserve and protect the rights of citizens. In a strictly academic sense, preserving order and protecting rights are the same thing. Operationally, they’re radically different approaches to policing.”

The saying goes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Federal programs have given local police a lot of hammers, likely with strings attached. It’s time for use to end those entanglements and put “local” back into local policing.

Rep. Hank Johnson is introducing a bill for next legislative session to end the military surplus buys, but we shouldn’t count on Congress to solve the problems. State lawmakers can act now and simply prohibit their state and local police from turning into paramilitary units.

There are two steps to achieve a better role for police in our community: rethink the operation and end the federal transfer of military equipment and training. We can have safe streets without a paramilitary, and focus on preventing real crimes rather than illusionary ones. We need a police engaged in a community instead of one that imposes on a community.

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