When Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill called this week for the “demilitarization” of Ferguson, Missouri, she could have been talking about hundreds of other communities across the country. In recent years, as the American Civil Liberties Union details in its remarkable new report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” the restructuring of local police departments into what look like occupying military forces has become “a nationwide trend.”
That trend was illustrated for America and the world by scenes from Ferguson where, after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, tensions flared. Local police met protests not just with extreme tactics—including the detention of journalists and the arrest of an elected alderman from neighboring St. Louis—but with armored vehicles, heavy weapons and a show of military force that made matters worse. With a bluntness that is rare for a US senator addressing the circumstances in a community in her state, McCaskill argued that “this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”
She was right about Ferguson, and about America.
The militarization of local policing is, indeed, a nationwide trend. It is encouraged by misguided “war on drugs” policies, misdirected Department of Homeland Security initiatives and the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which sends “surplus military equipment” that USA Today describes as “left over from US military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere” to underfunded police departments. It remakes those departments in a way that, the ACLU notes, “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
Ferguson has changed the discussion.
Now, it’s time to change the policies.
“Since the 1980s the US government has enabled the militarization of the police force as part of its so-called War on Drugs. Post-9/11 politics opened the floodgates with grants from the federal government to prepare for the imminent terrorist threat. Now, as combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended, the Pentagon is literally giving battlefield hardware away,” says Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, which has organized a campaign to press members of Congress on the issue. “The militarism of policing—both in terms of weaponry and tactics—is a threat to our freedom as great as any coming from outside our borders. It’s time to put it to a stop.”
Democratic and Republican members of Congress have begun to step up on the issue.