On Sunday morning in East Williamsburg, NY, a joint Department of Homeland Security and NYPD raid of a drug ring was executed. The raid wasn't the big story though; rather it was the tactics used by the police that scared local residents. DHS moved in on a military MRAP, the vehicle designed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to withstand improvised explosive device attacks, scaring local residents as they turned Brooklyn into downtown Fallujah. Even more terrifying for residents, the snipers perched atop the MRAP putting laser sights on locals who were just looking out their windows at the commotion. This isn't a singular event or even unique to major cities, ask Nampa, Idaho. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have winded down, police have actively recruited military personnel and equipment, turning domestic police departments into small battalions more suited for Kabul than Peoria.
With attack duty and reservists called up to fight abroad returning home, former soldiers have joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed, seeking jobs after being out of the work force for years. Police departments provide attractive employment opportunities to returning veterans. Given the nature of the wars, mainly the more police centric nation building we did in Iraq, and the overall skill set of fitness and weapons training veterans possess, police departments are eager to hire veterans. In fact, online job search engine monster.com has a specific page setup for veterans transitioning to police departments. One big point that the website makes is this: in combat zones, there is no US Constitution but domestically, there are privacy rights reserved for citizens. And that's the rub. In no way does this malign our veterans but when your experience is policing an occupied people under military rules of engagement, can we really expect a seamless transition to domestic law enforcement? Constitutional protections are a very nuanced right and we need to be extra vigilant that we don't bring Ramadi rules back to the United States.
It's not just a personnel issue though. In war, especially an occupation, part of the plan is a show of force to intimidate the enemy and make occupation easier. Rolling tanks through Baghdad has the distinct ability to terrify anyone without a tank. In the United States, the police are not meant to intimidate but to reassure, their presence is supposed to have a calming effect on citizens and make criminals aware that there is a force ready to stop them after they strike. Now these weapons of war are coming to a town near you! The Department of Defense, in an effort to unload now unnecessary military hardware, is sending these vehicles to towns at no cost to the town to bolster their police forces. Once mounted by .50 caliber machine guns, they are now retrofitted for domestic use. I suppose they'll be really good at catching people texting while driving. The military built these to withstand explosions and now they're be using for raids by SWAT teams that, save the camouflage, look markedly similar to special forces teams raiding terrorist hideouts. How is a police force supposed to comfort law abiding citizens when masked police make towns feel like occupied Crimea?
The MRAPS are scary looking but the scariest implications are the new use of drones domestically. Ignoring the Constitutional limitations on the use of drones, the mere fact that a Predator is flying above head should be disconcerting to even the most trusting citizen. Now, you might say well they're only used in situations where there is a danger to officers. Yes, or when people won't return some cows. The purpose of civil liberties is to protect Americans from an over bearing government, especially an armed police force that is afforded wide latitude and directly interacts with citizens. As an affront to the fourth amendment, instead of being vigilant about police abuses, we're giving them predator drones and tanks on wheels to dole out justice. Think about that, domestic law enforcement is using equipment we use to vaporize terrorists from 10,000 feet in the air, oh, and their 16-year-old US citizen childen. But don't worry, we'll be more careful on home soil.
None of this is to say that every police department will abuse their power. More likely than not, the majority will not abuse these new toys but use them to more effectively police. However, we're a country that looks at possible problems from a prism of "what if it happens once and how can we prevent it." The possible malfeasance with these military vehicles is much higher than just getting pulled over in a speed trap or a questionable Terry stop. We've brought the military back from war, provided them with the same guns and vehicles and are supposed to assume and hope they can all draw the line on civil liberties even though the scenario is identical to a combat zone. While I don't doubt law enforcements ability, the country would be better off with police being police, not a military unit patrolling the streets. When I was in China, the prevalence of machine guns was stunning. Now, I would be happy to just not see an M-1 Abrams rolling down Broadway, which all of a sudden seems like a real possibility.