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John W. Whitehead

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Tanks on Main Street: The Militarization of Local Police

Posted: 01/04/12 10:53 AM ET

"If we're training cops as soldiers, giving them equipment like soldiers, dressing them up as soldiers, when are they going to pick up the mentality of soldiers? If you look at the police department, their creed is to protect and to serve. A soldier's mission is to engage his enemy in close combat and kill him. Do we want police officers to have that mentality? Of course not." -- Arthur Rizer, former civilian police officer and member of the military

Take a close look at your local police officers, the ones who patrol your neighborhoods and ensure the safety of your roadways. Chances are they look less and less like the benevolent keepers of the peace who patrolled Andy Griffith's Mayberry and more like inflexible extensions of the military. As journalist Benjamin Carlson points out, "In today's Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife could be using grenade launchers and a tank to keep the peace." This is largely owing to the increasing arsenal of weapons available to police units, the changing image of the police within communities, and the growing idea that the police can and should use any means necessary to maintain order.

Moreover, as an investigative report by Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz reveals, in communities large and small across America, local law enforcement are arming themselves to the teeth with weapons previously only seen on the battlefield. "Many police, including beat cops, now routinely carry assault rifles. Combined with body armor and other apparel, many officers look more and more like combat troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan."

To our detriment, local police -- clad in jackboots, helmets and shields and wielding batons, pepper-spray, stun guns, and assault rifles -- have increasingly come to resemble occupying forces in our communities. "Today," notes Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, "17,000 local police forces are equipped with such military equipment as Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, battering rams, explosives, chemical sprays, body armor, night vision, rappelling gear and armored vehicles. Some have tanks. "

Yet appearances to the contrary, the American police force is not supposed to be a branch of the military, nor is it a private security force for the reigning political faction. It is an aggregation of the countless local civilian units that exist for a sole purpose: to serve and protect the citizens of each and every American community.

It is particularly telling that whereas in the past, law enforcement strove to provide a sense of security, trust, and comfort, the impression conveyed today is one of power, dominance and inflexible authority. However, this transformation of local police into military units did not happen overnight. It cannot be traced back to a single individual or event. Rather, the evolution has been so subtle that most American citizens were hardly even aware of it taking place. Yet little by little, police authority expanded, one weapon after another was added to the police arsenal, and one exception after another was made to the standards that have historically restrained police authority.

What began with the militarization of the police in the 1980s during the government's war on drugs has snowballed into a full-fledged integration of military weaponry, technology and tactics into police protocol. For example, in 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which granted the military the power to help local police forces wage the "war on drugs" by sharing equipment, training, and intelligence. In 1997, Congress approved the 1033 Program, which allowed the Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus military supplies and weapons to local law enforcement agencies without charge -- the only thing that local police departments have to pay for is shipping and future maintenance. And police departments aren't just getting boots and medkits -- they're receiving assault rifles, mini-tanks, grenade launchers, and remote controlled robots.

Since 1997, more than 17,000 agencies have taken advantage of the 1033 Program, acquiring $2.6 billion dollars worth of weapons and equipment, and demand is only getting higher. In fact, a record-setting $500 million worth of equipment was distributed in 2011, twice the amount given away in 2010, and orders for fiscal year 2012 are already up 400 percent.

As Becker and Schulz report, more than $34 billion in federal government grants made available to local police agencies in the wake of 9/11 "ha[ve] fueled a rapid, broad transformation of police operations... across the country. More than ever before, police rely on quasi-military tactics and equipment." For example:

If terrorists ever target Fargo, N.D., the local police will be ready. In recent years, they have bought bomb-detection robots, digital communications equipment and Kevlar helmets, like those used by soldiers in foreign wars. For local siege situations requiring real firepower, police there can use a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret.

Moreover:

No one can say exactly what has been purchased in total across the country or how it's being used, because the federal government doesn't keep close track. State and local governments don't maintain uniform records. But a review of records from 41 states obtained through open-government requests, and interviews with more than two-dozen current and former police officials and terrorism experts, shows police departments around the U.S. have transformed into small army-like forces.

For example:

In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff's department owns a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone. In Garland County, Ark., known for its pleasant hot springs, a local law enforcement agency acquired four handheld bulletproof protective shields costing $600 each. In East Baton Rouge, La., it was $400 ballistic helmets. In Augusta, Maine, with fewer than 20,000 people and where an officer hasn't died from gunfire in the line of duty in more than 125 years, police bought eight $1,500 tactical vests. And for police in Des Moines, Iowa, it was two $180,000 bomb robots.

The purchases get even more extravagant the deeper you go. For instance, police in Cobb County, Ga., have an amphibious tank and Richland County, S.C., police have a machine-gun-equipped armored personnel carrier called "The Peacemaker" the likes of which had previously only been seen in war zones. The 50-person police department in Oxford, Ala., has acquired $2-3 million worth of equipment in recent years, including M-16s and remote-controlled robots. One popular piece of equipment, the BearCat, a "16,000-pound bulletproof truck equipped with battering rams, gun ports, tear-gas dispensers and radiation detectors" which costs $237,000, has been sold to over 500 local agencies. Police in Hanceville, Ala., (population 3,000) have acquired $250,000 worth of equipment. While these so-called "free" surplus military weapons may seem like a windfall for cash-strapped communities, the maintenance costs for such extraneous equipment can quickly skyrocket. For example, police in Tupelo, Miss., spent about $274,000 over five years servicing a helicopter that flew an average of ten missions per year.

In addition to the military equipment acquired by police departments via the 1033 Program, police agencies are also beginning to use drones -- pilotless, remote-controlled aircraft that have been used extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- domestically. The Federal Aviation Administration has already issued 266 testing permits to local police agencies seeking to employ drone technology. AeroVironment Inc., a manufacturer of drones, intends to sell 18,000 5-pound drones controlled via tablet computer to police departments throughout the country. They are also touting the "Switchblade," a small, one-use drone, that has the ability to track a person from the air and then fly down to their level and explode. Moreover, some police officials are already discussing outfitting these spy drones with "nonlethal" weapons. Most recently, police in North Dakota arrested a family of farmers using information acquired by a spy drone.

With violent crime nationwide at a 40-year low, most of this equipment is not only largely unnecessary but is completely incongruous with the security needs of smaller communities. Yet whether or not the use of such sophisticated and overblown militarized equipment is justified, many local police units still feel compelled to put it to use. Hence, the widespread misuse of military equipment by law enforcement is a growing and well-documented problem that has resulted in the deaths of innocent people, nonviolent offenders and police officers. A perfect example of this is the tendency on the part of many communities to employ heavily armed SWAT teams to carry out routine police procedures such as routine search warrants. Consequently, SWAT team raids, which once numbered a few thousand per year in the 1980s, have grown to over 50,000 per year in the 2000s.

As Paul Craig Roberts makes clear in his article, "The Empire Turns Its Guns on the Citizenry," the government -- local law enforcement now being extensions of the federal government -- has trained its sights on the American people. We have become the enemy. And if it is true, as the military asserts, that the key to defeating an enemy is having the technological advantage, then "we the people" are at a severe disadvantage.

 
 
 

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