In the last week, the ACLU, Color of Change and even libertarian Senator Rand Paul have demanded that militarized policing in the United States be dialed back. While it is essential that major reductions in the high-tech military presence of police be enacted, real changes in the way communities of color are policed require much deeper shifts in the core mission and function of American police.
Much of the militarized weaponry seen in Ferguson comes directly from the Pentagon through the 1033 weapons transfer program begun in 1997. This program has resulted in the distribution of $4 billion worth of equipment. Local police departments can get surplus armaments at no cost—and no questions asked about how they will be used. Small and medium-sized communities across the country now have access to armored personnel carriers, assault rifles and a variety of so-called “less lethal” weaponry such as rubber bullets and pepper spray rounds. Compounding the effects of 1033, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has also given out $34 billion in “terrorism grants” that have been a tremendous boon for military contractors trying to expand their reach into civilian policing markets. In response to the events in Ferguson, US Representative Hank Johnson from Georgia has sent a letter to members of Congress expressing his intent to introduce a bill ending the 1033 program. The passage of this bill, as well as the ending of DHS terror grants, needs to be combined with federal restrictions on the use of military equipment in order to prevent the kind of militarized response seen in Ferguson.
One of the uses of this new hardware has been specifically in the suppression of dissent. While many big-city departments have resisted this trend, many others, along with hundreds of medium-sized and smaller cities, have invested millions in body armor, riot shields and less lethal weaponry . Some of this technology was on display in several cities during the Occupy movement. An article by Radley Balko, author of The Rise of the Warrior Cop , in last week’s Washington Post lays out the danger of such strategies. Departments need to return to less intensive protest policing, which is cheaper, more effective in maintaining order, and better for overall police-community relations. Police need to rely on better communication, flexibility and tolerance rather than ever-more-intensive command-and-control strategies . Federal courts need to expand First Amendment protections to enhance not just the right of speech but also the right of assembly, which has been greatly abridged in recent decades.
Since 9/11 there has been a tremendous expansion of the surveillance and intelligence-gathering functions of local police in conjunction with federal authorities. The Department of Homeland Security has funded the creation of dozens of anti-terror fusion centers across the country. Since the actual threat of terrorism in places like Helena, Montana, and Jefferson, Missouri, is so minuscule, they engage instead in broad surveillance activities, partnering in some cases with local businesses to do political threat assessments targeting peace activists, the Occupy movement and many others. In October 2012 the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report showing that these centers had not generated any information relevant to terrorism and criticized DHS for resisting any effort at oversight. Congress should end this program and enact restrictions on the gathering and sharing of intelligence independent of specific criminal activities.