After seeing images of the police gear in video footage, Obama asked senior advisers to look into the programs that provided them. He also spoke about the images in a news conference with reporters a week after Brown's death. Some post-9/11 equipment upgrades have been useful, he said, noting in particular the improvements to radio communications and to equipment for dealing with hazardous material.Police militarization has come from two programs.
But Obama said he wanted to make sure that what police are buying is "stuff that they actually need."
He also warned that "there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don't want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions."
One began after the first Gulf War in 1991 and was ramped up in section 1033 of the defense spending authorization bill in 1994 and stepped up even more after the terrorist attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon in 2001.
Since 1995, $5.1 billion in "surplus" military goods—including hundreds of assault rifles, machine-guns, tanks, drones, and MRAPs, vehicles built to withstand the impact of improvised explosive devices U.S. troops encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program also provides significant amounts of non-military items such as flat-panel screens.
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The second program provides grants to local police from the Department of Homeland Security. Since the 9/11 attacks, these DHS grants have totaled $34 billion, according to Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz at the Center for Investigative Reporting:
The federal grant spending, awarded with little oversight from Washington, has fueled a rapid, broad transformation of police operations in Fargo and in departments across the country. More than ever before, police rely on quasi-military tactics and equipment, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.In June, the American Civil Liberties Union published a 97-page report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police. Among other things, the ACLU says a rule mandating that military matériel given to police forces must be used within a year could push cops to use such equipment in inappropriate circumstances, such as stomping on peaceful protests.
No one can say exactly what has been purchased in total across the country or how it’s being used, because the federal government doesn’t keep close track. State and local governments don’t maintain uniform records. But a review of records from 41 states obtained through open-government requests, and interviews with more than two-dozen current and former police officials and terrorism experts, shows police departments around the U.S. have transformed into small army-like forces.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, have both said they will hold hearings on the programs after the August recess.
Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia will introduce a bill in September that would prohibit certain transfers of equipment to local police. On Johnson's list: automatic weapons not generally recognized as particularly suitable for law enforcement purposes, including those that are .50 caliber or greater; tactical vehicles, including highly mobile multi-wheeled vehicles, armored vehicles, and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles; armored drones; aircraft; flash-bang or stun grenades; silencers.
Johnson's proposal is a good one. But as investigative reporter Radley Balko told Michael Arria in an interview last year in Vice, more military gear is only a piece of the militarization of police. “I think a much deeper problem is the effect all of this war talk and battle rhetoric has had on policing as a profession,” Balko said. “In much of the country today, police officers are psychologically isolated from the communities they serve.”
In Ferguson, that isolation is exacerbated by the fact that the 94-percent-white police force is so far from reflecting a 69-percent-black community that a highly regarded black officer had to be brought in from the state highway patrol to try to calm down the situation in the city after Michael Brown was slain.