Friends Committee on National Legislation Newsletter – 2014-10-17 01:08:45
Militarism Hits Home: Tanks on Main Street
Friends Committee on National Legislation Newsletter
(September 30, 2014) — Weapons, some of which last saw service in the military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, are equipping police departments in towns and cities across the country. The protests and police response in Ferguson, Missouri this summer showed what this looks like — unarmed protestors met by police officers dressed in camouflage uniforms, driving armored vehicles and armed with tear gas and M-16s.
But the equipment is only a symptom of the larger problem. Too many police departments follow the pattern that emerged in Ferguson, with officers treating people in the communities they are employed to protect as enemies to be subjugated.
Overly aggressive policing particularly affects African American and Hispanic neighborhoods. In a September 2014 report, “Race and Punishment,” researchers at The Sentencing Project discuss the ways that dark skin is conflated with criminality, both at the individual and neighborhood level.
These often-unconscious associations have wide-ranging implications, from the laws that policymakers propose to the tactics that police departments employ. Sometimes, as in Ferguson, the consequences are deadly. Sometimes the violence is less visible, but violence none the less.
Writing in the New York Times last spring, author Ta-nehisi Coates stated, “The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the â€˜middle class,’ will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people.”
The evidence, unfortunately, bears out the assertion that race plays into law enforcement decisions. Despite comparable rates of drug use and sales across racial lines, for example, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are white people.
Not only is this approach morally wrong, it leads to less effective law enforcement. In the same report, The Sentencing Project observes that “racial minorities’ perception of unfairness in the criminal justice system has dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials.” Conversely, when officers build relationships and trust within the community they serve, they can work in partnership to advance public safety.
Laws, and a system to enforce those laws, are a necessary part of living together in a community. As Margery Post Abbot describes in the FCNL pamphlet, “A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying,” laws are the means “by which the community sets bounds on behavior, apprehends those who break those bounds and aspires to help them become part of the community again.”
Too many neighborhoods experience law enforcement from a different perspective. A militarized police force, in attitude and equipment, focuses attention largely on the places it expects to find crime. The eruption of protest in Ferguson following Michael Brown’s death signals a seething and righteous anger at an occupying force, one that is out of touch with and out of the control of local residents.
These communities are done with being treated as “the enemy.” Hands up, they declare that they are U.S. citizens with rights, including the right to be treated with dignity and respect and, most importantly, the right to stay alive.
How did police in Ferguson, Missouri afford, let alone acquire, the powerful military equipment that met protestors this summer? A Pentagon program called 1033 provides part of the answer. The program was born in the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, legislation that determines how the US can spend money on the military. Its name comes from the section of the bill, 1033, in which it appeared.
Over the past 15 years, this program has allowed the Pentagon to donate military equipment worth more than $4 billion to local law enforcement agencies. The pace of donations has increased in recent years, due to fears of terrorist attacks, budget cuts and the winding down of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012 alone, municipal law enforcement agencies received $546 million in equipment.
Ferguson is just one of many communities to receive equipment through this program. Towns all over the country now possess Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and other equipment designed for a war zone. Police in towns such as Columbia, South Carolina; McLennan County, Texas; Nampa, Idaho; West Lafayette, Indiana; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Yuma, Arizona; Calhoun, Alabama; and at Ohio State University are kitted out to respond to violent extremists with lethal, military force.
The US response to the September 11 attacks is partly behind this dangerous escalation. Suddenly, communities felt they needed to be on high alert at all times, ready to respond to any threat. In this culture of fear, the Pentagon spent billions of dollars on weapons and equipment for war.
That equipment went to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. As troops came home, surplus equipment went straight to police departments, thanks to the 1033 program.
For a police department like Ferguson’s, the path to becoming a paramilitary force is a short one. After getting this free military gear, law enforcement agents use it. The 1033 program’s regulations require that the police use what they receive within one year.
At a recent FCNL-sponsored congressional briefing on the militarization of police, Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, painted a picture of a new and frightening kind of policing, seen most often and most brutally in black and Hispanic communities and neighborhoods.
The ACLU report, “The War Comes Home,” describes how heavily armed 20-member SWAT teams are used routinely to execute search warrants, often entering homes late at night and using battering rams to break down doors. They come in with assault weapons drawn. SWAT teams were originally developed to respond to emergencies, such as sniper and hostage situations. Now 79 percent of their “deployments” are for executing warrants.
This militarizing of routine police work exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of disorder. This disorder, in turn, appears to justify a militarized police response, and so the cycle continues.
The federal government can start to change the equation by ending Pentagon transfers of military grade weapons through the 1033 program. Cutting off access to these weapons won’t, by itself, change the attitude of police officers towards the people they serve. But it is an important step to return police to policing, not occupying, their communities.
FCNL first began talking to lawmakers about the 1033 program last year, when few others were questioning the program. The events in Ferguson have brought home to many people the dangers of a militarized approach to policing. This September, enabled by our advocacy, Reps. Hank Johnson (GA) and Raul Labrador (ID) introduced the bipartisan Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
We’ve also helped amplify the voices of law enforcement officers who are critical of this militarized approach. At the congressional briefing this summer, former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper talked about how military-style tactics like those his department used during the 1999 WTO protests are counterproductive, leading community members to feel suspicious and threatened. Police access to military-grade equipment only reinforces this attitude.
Rolling back the 1033 program is important, but it’s not enough. Through the Department of Homeland Security’s “terrorism grants” program, local police departments have received more than $34 billion to acquire surveillance drones, Army tanks and other equipment ill-suited for local policing. Like the 1033 program, these grants contribute to militarized policing that damages trust between police officers and community members. We are encouraging members of Congress to roll back this program as well.
The tragic events in Ferguson this summer have focused national attention on what police militarization looks like. This gives an opportunity to talk about the context in which it arose. Initiatives such as the 1033 program and terrorism grants to local communities reflect attitudes of fear, hostility and suspicion.
At the same time, lines are increasingly blurred between foreign and domestic policy and between military and non-military activities in the US. Even as we work to eliminate the specific programs through which these attitudes are manifest, we must also speak to the reasons these programs were created and the alternative approaches that will ensure the shared security of us all.
Last fall, FCNL’s Elizabeth Beavers was trying to find out why military contractors make so much money. In the process, she uncovered a curious fact: a small town in the US was selling off its supply of military assault rifles to cover a budget shortfall. Why did this town have so many assault rifles, she wondered? Her quest to find out the answer led FCNL to the Pentagon’s 1033 program.
A year ago, the program wasn’t surrounded by the controversy it is today. FCNL was one of the first groups to call attention to it. This gave us the unusual opportunity to identify both the problem and the solution and, in the course of just one year, see the introduction of legislation that would significantly restrict this program. Congress rarely moves this quickly.
Elizabeth teamed up with FCNL’s associate director for legislative affairs, Michael Shank, to publish two op-eds about the 1033 program in October 2013. FCNL worked to get those pieces into congressional offices, and members of Congress were eager to know what they could do to keep military equipment off our country’s streets.
Throughout the fall, winter and spring, we met with members of Congress to build support for an end to the program. Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson’s office was particularly interested in drafting legislation. The representative co-authored an oped with Michael this spring to help move policy proposals forward.
Our conversations with Congress about this program also helped us raise a larger issue with them: the issue of militarization of U.S. laws and policies. As we talked with members of Congress about the need to stop the flow of military equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan to local police departments, we also talked about ways to keep our communities safe that don’t assume that violence should be met with violence and that don’t involve more guns. Talking about this specific policy issue helped make the larger issue more concrete for elected officials.
Meanwhile, other groups joined these efforts. In June the ACLU released a powerful report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” which looks at the use of SWAT teams to perform routine police tasks such as serving a warrant. In July we co-hosted a congressional briefing with the ACLU to educate members of Congress and their staff about how the 1033 program is changing the nature of law enforcement.
Even before the events in Ferguson, we were getting new traction in congressional offices on legislation to scale back the program. The national attention focused on Ferguson this summer accelerated the process.
FCNL was in a position to offer an answer to the question everyone was asking: what can we do to keep this from happening again? Through dozens of interviews and op-eds, as well as continued Hill lobbying, we made sure policymakers knew what they could do.
The bipartisan Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, introduced by Reps. Hank Johnson (GA) and Raul Labrador (ID) in September, would impose new regulations on the 1033 program and prevent armored personnel carriers, drones, assault weapons and aircraft from being transferred to local police departments.
The legislation would ensure that the Department of Defense undertakes an annual accounting of what’s been transferred, by whom and to whom. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn introduced similar legislation that would also restrict grants through the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that similarly enable police departments to acquire military equipment and weapons. Now, our focus is on building support for this House and Senate legislation.
Some aspects of this story are unusual. It’s rare that national attention focuses on the very policy we are working on, at precisely the moment that helps move legislation forward. In many ways, though, this story is about how FCNL does its work all the time. We have a big vision for the world we seek — a world free of war, where militarized policies and budgets don’t get in the way of ordinary people living their lives to their full potential, in a society with equity and justice for all.
We look for the specific things that Congress can do to get us closer to that vision. And then we focus our attention on changing that policy — and on educating members of Congress and their staff about new perspectives in the process.
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