Removing Military Weaponry From Our Streets

08/06/2015 11:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Police and sheriff departments in California have obtained more than 15,000 assault rifles, many for use in ordinary street patrolling. Police in the state received about half of these military-grade weapons through Pentagon handouts during the last decade, while California police have purchased more than 7,600 AR-15 assault weapons themselves.

In February, one of these military-grade weapons was put to tragic use. Police in Emeryville, California shot and killed a 38-year-old African American woman, Yuvette Henderson, after she left a Home Depot not far from where I live. Henderson was killed with an AR-15 assault rifle, issued to Emeryville PD patrol officers. Possession of the AR-15 is prohibited for ordinary citizens in California (and was part of a national ban on assault weapons from 1994 to 2004).

It is unclear whether the police use of a military weapon -- as opposed to an ordinary gun -- made any difference to the outcome. But "supplying military weaponry to police reinforces the idea that they're going to war when they go into communities of color," Cat Brooks, founder of the Anti Police Terror Project, told me.

Henderson reportedly had a gun at the time she was shot, although she did not fire it and police have not said she pointed it at them. It was clear that she was in mental distress, and had apparently been injured in the Home Depot.

In any case, being unarmed might not have saved Henderson, either. Across the country, police have killed at least 55 unarmed Black people so far this year, according to an ongoing count documented by The Guardian. That is more than four times the number of unarmed victims, per capita, as unarmed White people killed by police. Just six blocks from where Henderson was killed, less than a week before, a White marijuana grower pursued police deputies and fired a high-powered gun at the officers, but they did not even return fire.

The argument you often hear for equipping police patrolmen with military-grade weapons is the armament of criminals. People want police to come out of a gunfight with such criminals and to "win," in the repeated words of some police training course descriptions. The practice of equipping street cops with assault weapons surged after a 1997 bank heist in Los Angeles, in which the robbers used both assault rifles and full body armor to wage a 30-minute battle with police. Ultimately, a SWAT team arrived and killed the robbers.

The use of this event to argue for military weaponry for law enforcement is instructive. It is all about planning for worst-case scenarios. (To be clear, we are talking about the worst case for police, not for other citizens.) According to that logic, every police department should plan for -- and arm themselves completely for -- a September 11 scenario. Since it happened once, it could happen again here. Near where I live, San Francisco has some corporate skyscrapers. Since these high-rise buildings could be attacked by hijackers, by this argument, the San Francisco PD should be equipped with F-16 fighter jets to deal with such a prospective attack.

The most probable outcomes of this, by far, would be either that the $165 million F-16 would gather dust, or it would be used in other situations, as shock-and-awe and overkill. You can use your imagination here. The effect is an arms race between law enforcement and their prospective adversaries.

But the pervasiveness of military grade weapons in the hands of police, and the inherent rarity of worse case scenarios, means these weapons are overwhelmingly deployed in ordinary policing and patrols. Just as SWAT teams are mostly used to serve warrants, usually in searches of homes for drugs, assault weapons are used for ordinary policing, especially against communities and individuals of color.

San Francisco resident Steven Gray was strolling in that city's Aquatic Park one evening around sundown a month ago, he told me, when he was startled to encounter two policemen from the National Park Service on foot patrol armed with AR-15s. An assault without a firearm had occurred in the area earlier in the day. "They walked along the promenade of the harbor, patrolling slowly," Gray said, and allowed him to take a photo. One of the officers smiled for the camera, the normalization of war. When Gray said he asked why they carried such big weapons, and one of them replied, "It gets the job done."

2015-07-31-1438368226-3477187-20150630_policeinAquaticPark.jpgPolice with AR-15 assault weapons patrol a San Francisco park. Photo: Steven Gray

The number of households in the United States that own a gun has declined to less than a third (down from half in the 1970s). But those who do own guns have more of them than they did before, according to studies by the University of Chicago and the Injury Prevention Center.

Moreover, Whites in the United States are more than twice as likely as Blacks or Latinos to own guns. Data on ownership of assault weapons is more sparse, but enthusiasm for assault rifles in gun shows and online appears to be overwhelmingly White. The vast majority of gun owners do not commit homicides. Nevertheless, if police are worried about how highly armed ordinary citizens are, their concern would focus proportionately more on high-powered guns in the hands of Whites, more than the Blacks who are disproportionately the targets of police violence.

Guns are durable goods -- they are not consumed like drugs. Yet we produce guns in the United States much faster each year than our population grows -- and assault weapons are popular guns in this country. In other words, both a portion of the citizenry and police are becoming more highly armed with military weapons.

Ultimately, we must slow down and stop the accelerated arming of police and citizens with military weapons of war. We can begin by stopping the importation of foreign-produced assault weapons for the U.S. civilian market, and by removing assault weapons from ordinary police patrols. We have more fruitful means of addressing violence, racism, and mental illness than escalating the number and kinds of military weapons available in this country.