Say their names - Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and George Floyd have all died this year at the hands of the police - the very institution that is supposed to serve and protect our communities. The list of victims does not stop here. Black Americans have historically been policed differently which has resulted in many lives lost, without accountability for the officers using force. The police have killed 598 people in 2020 alone, and since 2013, Black Americans are 3 times as likely to be killed by police than White Americans (Martin and Kposowa). We need to re-evaluate the role police play in our everyday lives, address the bias against black and brown bodies in America, and ask ourselves - “How safe do we feel with the presence of police officers?”
Our reactions to domestic threats in the United States have led to ideological wars such as the War on Drugs and the War on Terror meant to keep Americans and officers safe and reduce crime. To stay true to its commitment towards public safety, the United States responded by providing advanced equipment to local law enforcement. As a result, local police departments have gained access to resources from the larger military-industrial complex to combat any threats in our country.
Despite the intentions of added protection, this has the potential to instill a culture of militarism within local police departments across the country which can influence their actions in the field and escalate their use of force. Addressing police behavior and how they exercise force starts with evaluating the funding of police departments and their connection to our national armed forces. Together with analysis of the policies that have created a culture of violence against the communities our police have sworn to protect, we can then consider alternative solutions to policing in America
America has created the largest and most expensive military network in the world. In 2019, Congress approved a discretionary budget that provided the military $678 billion [over half of the budget] (Congressional Budget Office, 2020). Over time, large annual government spending has generated a surplus of military resources that was enabled to be re-distributed across U.S. local police forces to combat domestic crime.
Following Reagan’s eight-year presidency, the federal government was increasingly concerned that police forces were not equipped to fight crime, particularly drug related crime and eventually domestic terrorism. This led to Program 1208 in 1990, which provided local police departments access to military equipment specifically to combat domestic drug crimes and terrorism. Eventually, the Clinton Administration established Program 1033 in 1997, allowing the DOD to expand the original scope of 1208 to provide local police departments with more military-grade weaponry for purposes other than drug-related crimes, such as arrests and apprehension of criminals. The purpose of this policy was to put our officers in a safer position while simultaneously reducing domestic crime rates across the U.S.
These federal and state law enforcement agencies have requested a variety of equipment, from nonlethal equipment such as high-tech cameras and camouflage/surveillance technology equipment and office supplies to assault rifles, grenades, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, helicopters, and drones (Marshall). Should community members feel safer knowing that local law enforcement has access to our larger military-industrial complex? Supporters of 1033 claim that it reduces crime and keeps cities safer, whereas its opponents claim that the use of these military-grade weapons increases police violence. Studies have argued both sides, but no definitive claims have been made. The uncertainty over the effects of the 1033 Program call for a reconsideration of its intentions and ultimate real-world impact, especially given the disproportionate death and use of force against Black Americans at the hands of police.
The magnitude of military transfers has become problematic and increasingly difficult to understand as to why local police departments need so many of these resources. The Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which oversees the transfer process, estimates that over the course of this three-decade policy, $7.4 billion (Barrett) military property has been transferred to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies (Bove and Gavrilova). However, experts are unclear on exact figures due to the lack of transparency of the transfers that took place. What are police departments doing with this abundance of military equipment, and more importantly, how is police behavior and use of force influenced by the availability of military technology? While there is still more research to be done on the topic, recent events have shown that the magnitude of this program may be instilling a militaristic culture in our police forces that furthers violence in American communities and disproportionately impacts BIPOC.
This transfer program has dulled the distinction between military soldiers and civilian police who are continuing to be armed with military equipment. Incorporating militarism into our domestic protection is based on the theory that “If superior, military-grade equipment helps the police catch more criminals and avert, or at least reduce, the threat of a domestic terror attack, then we ought deem it an instance of positive sharing technology...” (Rizer and Hartman). While this may have been the original intention of Program 1033, a survey conducted by Oxford University shows that 77% of field officers found that using these military resources influenced their policing and made them more aggressive (Marshall). This validates the growing civilian concerns that the use of military resources among local law enforcement “blurs the distinction between soldiers and peace officers” (Rizer and Hartman) while enabling more severe use of force.
Program 1033 started to receive push-back after the tragic murderer of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri Officer in 2014. On the second day of protests, citizens were met with armored vehicles, assault weapons, and camouflage uniforms. The use of such equipment in this and more recent police events has displayed the culture of militarization in our law enforcement, which has often had the unintended result of generating more violence and tension between police officers and the citizens attempting to peacefully protest. This led the Obama administration to review and curtail the 1033 Program by creating lists of “prohibited equipment” that could no longer be distributed to police, and “controlled equipment” that could only be provided for a demonstrated need.” According to Obama, “Militarized gear gives the impression that police are an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community they swore to protect." (Jackman). His efforts in limiting the 1033 Program were aimed towards creating greater cohesion between police forces and the communities they serve.
The public has had enough of Black Americans dying at the hands of police officers without any sense of accountability or changes in policing policy. The murder of George Floyd mobilized nationwide Black Lives Matter Protests demanding justice and equality. These same protests that demand justice, police accountability, action, and change have also been met with police officers that appear more like soldiers than local police. This overextension of the military into American life has gone too far, especially for BIPOC who are policed differently than their white counterparts. It is time for America to have a systematic discussion over the use of force used by police officers and the equipment they can use.
This article is not meant to target police officers by making them unsafe in the field, but there is clearly a problem with the current method of policing and use of force in our country. Defunding and reallocating the generous budget police departments have at their disposal is a first bold step that can be taken to promote a holistic approach to creating healthier and safer communities that do not involve military weaponry and enforcement. Currently, there is an unprecedented expansion of government power in the realm of policing. There need to be better guidelines that relegate the military mentality that is applied to policing. If there are no established rules and accountability for police officers, innocent citizens will continue to be portrayed as the enemy and criminals instead of the constituency the police should protect.
Barrett, Brian. “The Pentagon’s Hand-Me-Downs Helped Militarize Police. Here’s How” Wired. June 2nd, 2020.
Bove, Vincenzo, and Gavrilova, Evelina. “Police Officer on the Frontline or a Soldier? The
Effect of Police Militarization on Crime.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. (2017).
Congressional Budget Office. “Discretionary Spending in 2019: An Infographic.” April 15th, 2020.
Jackman, Tom. “Trump to restore program sending surplus military weapons, equipment to police.” The Washington Post. August 27th, 2017.
Kraska, Peter. “Militarization and Police - Its Relevance to 21st Century Police.” Eastern Kentucky University. December 13th, 2007.
Marshall, Madeline. “Why America’s police look like soldiers.” Vox Media. June 25th, 2020.
Martin, Nicole, and Kposowa, Augustine. “Race and Consequences: An Examination of Police Abuse in America.” Journal of Social Sciences. January 25th, 2019.
Rizer, Arthur, and Hartman Joseph. “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police.” The Atlantic. November 7th, 2011.