Concerns about the militarization of American policing have been on the increase for some time now, but have crystallized in the wake of the heavy-handed police response to the killing earlier this summer of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
In the past decade, affairs have only accelerated as police departments around the land have availed themselves of Congress's largesse in letting them pick up surplus military equipment for free, bringing home Humvees and MRAPs, as well as all kinds of armaments and military get-up. Under the weight of all that gear, policemen who used to look like Officer Friendly have taken on the appearance of imperial storm troopers.
That has all taken place under the Pentagon's 1033 program, which allows the transfer of such equipment from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan state and local law enforcement agencies without charge. But, critics claim, while appropriate as war materiel, much of this equipment is not suited for civilian law enforcement purposes.
Law enforcement's resort to military equipment against largely peaceful civilian protestors in Ferguson, with armored vehicles moving in to confront teenagers wearing shorts and sniper rifles aimed from turrets at local residents put the issue front and center in the national consciousness.
There were congressional hearings on the topic last week, and today, a bipartisan pair of congressmen, Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Raul Labrador (R-ID), announced that they had filed a bill to rein in the Department of Defense program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The bill is HR 5478, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014. It would:
- Prevent transfers of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, armed drones, armored vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives.
- End incentives to use equipment in circumstances when the use is unnecessary. Under the 1033 program, local police are required to use the equipment within a year, incentivizing towns to use it in inappropriate circumstances.
- Require that recipients certify that they can account for all equipment. In 2012, the weapons portion of the 1033 program was temporarily suspended after DOD found that a local sheriff had gifted out army-surplus Humvees and other supplies. This bill would prohibit re-gifting and require recipients to account for all equipment received from DOD.
- Remove any reference to counterdrug operations from the program, thus ensuring that law enforcement is not incentivized to use the equipment to perform arrests of those suspected of being low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
"Our nation was founded on the principle of a clear line between the military and civilian policing," said Labrador. "The Pentagon's current surplus property program blurs that line by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns. Our bill would restore the focus of local law enforcement on protecting citizens and providing due process for the accused."
The bill also adds requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that keep up with and control transfers of the equipment, implement policies ensuring that police agencies can't surplus the equipment for resale and define drones more clearly. It would also specify that the use of MRAPs, grenades, and drones is not appropriate for civilian law enforcement.
In addition to Johnson and Labrador, the bill's original cosponsors are Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), John Conyers (D-MI), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Jim Moran (D-VA).
The move is winning kudos from drug reform organizations.
"In light of what we all saw in Ferguson, Missouri, the American people are clamoring for law enforcement to become less militarized. Grenades, drones, and tanks may belong on the battlefield; they certainly don't have a place on US streets," said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "Such militarization is inextricably linked to the drug war, where SWAT teams and no-knock raids have become a routine part of drug arrests, even in the case of nonviolent offenders."
The bill is a good first step in reining in law enforcement militarization, he said.
"This legislation is a thoughtful attempt at tackling a very worrying problem -- the militarization of law enforcement," Collins said. "The Pentagon program is highly problematic because preferential treatment is given to those police forces that use their equipment to fight the drug war. This bill would end that, and move us away from a heavy-handed approach to drug policy."