On Thursday night, for the first time since a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were not met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Instead, they got an official escort from the captain of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Some of the change in tone can be attributed to the Department of Justice, which sent officials from six of its agencies to Ferguson in response to the outcry against Brown’s death and the militarized police response that followed. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
Lost amid the reports from Ferguson was news that the DOJ is also preparing to wade into a debate about policing nationwide. According to USA Today, the DOJ has initiated a “broad review of police tactics,” including the use of deadly force. The review is expected to be completed next year, and may be accompanied by the creation of special law enforcement commission. Police reform advocates welcome a federal review, but say its impact depends on the government’s willingness to probe its own role in the militarization of the police.
It’s been decades since the government has taken stock of the way police operate around the country. When President Johnson ordered a commission to do so in 1965, it was in response to what he described as the “malignant enemy” of crime. Now events in Ferguson have made it plain that the malignancy lies not in a violent society but within law enforcement agencies themselves.
There are more than 18,000 local and state police departments around the country, and as a result, a patchwork of policies and tactics. This was apparent during the Occupy protests, which some police responded to with riot gear and pepper spray, while others met demonstrators with conversation. Adding to the confusion are the new roles that the federal government has asked police to assume, particularly as collaborators with immigration and counterterrorism authorities. According to USA Today, the federal review will examine these expanded responsibilities as well as new technology and the way police interact with mentally ill people.
Advocates for police reform hope that the DOJ review will lead to more uniformity in how police officers are trained and deployed. “There needs to come out of DOJ a model policy that police departments have to follow in order to deploy SWAT teams. There should be a policy that would govern when it’s appropriate to use military weapons and military vehicles. Right now there’s no oversight,” said Thomas Nolan, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who now chairs the department of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. “Is there a national model that DOJ could formulate to say, ‘These are the tactics and policies that govern the regulation of civilian populations in the course of their exercise of constitutionally protected activities like free assembly and free speech, and freedom of the press’?”
In order to facilitate accountability and oversight, reformers would like the feds to require police to collect more data, and make it easily available to the public—for example, on the demographics of people stopped, searched and shot. “How many unarmed black men have been killed by the police in the last five years? That’s a very hard question to answer, because police departments often are not keeping that data,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project. Solutions could be technological, like requiring police to use body cameras to record interactions with civilians, as well as simple administrative requirements that standardize what kind of data police collect, and how they store it.
Yet reform advocates also say that the most significant changes need to take place at a higher level than individual police forces. “It’s critical that the federal government start looking at what local police departments are doing, what kind of tactics they’re using,” said Edwards. “But part of that review really has to be looking in the mirror to say, ‘What is the government doing to subsidize and encourage many of those tactics?’”
It’s doing a lot. The Defense Department’s 1033 program has bestowed $4.3 billion worth of surplus military equipment to police around the country, including tactical items like assault rifles and armored vehicles. The Department of Justice itself buys rubber bullets, tear gas and body armor for police. The Department of Homeland Security runs its own grant program that supplies equipment to law enforcement. Body armor worn by Ferguson police officers, as well as the $360,000 Bearcat armored vehicle that patrolled the town in recent days, was purchased with federal money.
“When you dress the police up like soldiers, they start thinking like soldiers. And soldiers engage an enemy,” said Nolan. At the very least, he argued, federal agencies should conduct more thorough needs-based assessments of funding requests—in other words, to ask whether a small-town police force really needs the tank it wants to buy with federal dollars.
That cops are now armed like warriors is a legacy of the government’s drug war, which Edwards links to many abusive police tactics, from racial profiling to deadly home raids. More than 60 percent of SWAT team deployments are for drug searches, and those paramilitary operations disproportionately impact people of color. Although Holder has been permissive with marijuana decriminalization at the state level, he has resisted calls to reclassify the drug, which is currently considered on par with heroin. The overarching problem, Edwards said, was the government’s insistence on treating drugs as a criminal rather than a public health problem.
The prospects for change of this magnitude aren’t great. When Democratic Representative Alan Grayson tried to partially defund the 1033 program in June via an amendment to a defense spending bill, only sixty-one other members of the House voted with him.
“This history of funding local police agencies to fight a drug war and then militarizing them as wars wind down in places like Afghanistan and Iraq—that’s a longstanding relationship that’s not going to end overnight,” said Edwards. “Police departments rely on this funding, they rely on this machinery, and the government seems all too happy to give it to them.” Lawmakers, meanwhile, rely on another longstanding relationship: with the defense industry, the ultimate benefactor from militarized policing.