A riot police officer aims his weapon while demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri August 13,
The images coming out of the Ferguson protests—armored cars, snipers on top of those vehicles with their rifles pointed at protesters, riot cops in full body armor lobbing tear gas canisters—have achieved one important thing: They've elevated the discussion about the grossly excessive militarization of local police departments. That discussion has been bubbling below the surface for years, since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars created a huge surplus of weapons for the Defense Department to distribute locally (like to Boise, Idaho
.) Now that discussion has hit full boil, even in the traditional media
, like CBS News. And it's rightly being identified as a problem.
The images out of Ferguson may finally serve as a tipping point needed to prompt lawmakers to reform the policies that allow local police forces to acquire Defense Department equipment without having to say much about how it's used or where it ultimately ends up.
With billions in equipment already disbursed across the country, it may seem too late to put the genie back in the bottle. But public advocates pressing for change say there's plenty Washington can do to curb the disbursement of such equipment—and even potentially take some of it off the streets.
"So much of the militarization of policing is fueled by federal programs, I think it's important for the federal government to take the lead here," ACLU criminal justice expert Kara Dansky told CBS News.
Already, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) has prepared the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act to introduce when Congress reconvenes next month. He's backed up by congress people from the left and right, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul. Both have spoken out against the Defense Department program that has supplied military equipment to local police departments since the 1990s
. That's more than $4 billion worth of discounted military equipment now in the hands of cops who may or may not have received any training on when and how to use it.
That's put the ACLU and the Gun Owners of America in the same camp—the camp that wants to end this practice and that is endorsing Johnson's bill. That legislation would limit the kinds of equipment that can be transferred to cops and create a tracking system for them. These weapons transfers happen under what's known as the "1033 program," a section of the National Defense Authorization Act enacted in the 1990s. At the time, the transfers were intended to fight the war on drugs. Since then they've been used, according to the ACLU, primarily for serving search warrants in drug cases.
There is no need for Boise, Idaho to have a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. It or any other city—many of which are a lot smaller—in this country. There is no need for a peaceful demonstration protesting the killing of an unarmed teenager to be met with a force that is more heavily armed than our troops were when they were on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
12:04 PM PT: Sen. Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services committee, says his committee will review the 1033 program.
“Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals. We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents. Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended."