Civilian Cops Don’t Need Military Weapons
I recently was driving behind a pickup truck that sported a bumper sticker with a U.S. Marine Corps logo and these words: “When it absolutely positively has to be destroyed overnight.” That line got me thinking about policing—and the vastly different roles between the U.S. military and the nation’s civilian police forces.
The goal of the military obviously is to subdue a nation’s enemies. The U.S. military has engaged in many misbegotten exercises that try build nations rather than destroy them, but they rarely go as planned. That’s because military forces are not really trained to create court systems and hold elections. If they were, that bumper sticker wouldn’t even be mildly funny.
Since the start of the drug war in the 1980s and following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our nation has increasingly blurred the distinction between the military and domestic police departments. Local police forces train their recruits as if they are patrolling the streets of Baghdad, and then equip them with surplus equipment from the latest wars.
This trend is dangerous and to some degree explains the frustrations that sparked national police protests. A Department of Justice report following a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, found that officers “demand compliance even when they lack legal authority” and “interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.”
In short, Americans don’t like to be treated as if they are living under occupation. Not all police officers or departments operate that way, but it’s common enough—and that authoritarian approach is at odds with the policing we should expect in a democratic society.
“The streets of America are not some far-off battlefield, and our police are not an occupying force,” the Project on Government Oversight explains. “The military’s function is to fight foreign enemies, which requires specialized weapons, gear, and tactics. Domestic police, however, are meant to protect individuals and uphold the rights that every American is afforded under the Constitution.”
That seems obvious, and yet the Pentagon’s 1033 program has sent $1.5 billion in decommissioned military hardware—firearms, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and aircraft—to local departments. (I once interviewed the head of a law-enforcement agency who refused such equipment because whenever departments received such toys, he said his officers would be too eager to use them.)
The Defense Logistics Agency seems proud of the program, as its website features stories of Texas police who deployed an MRAP during a SWAT raid and a Michigan department that used a personnel carrier to deal with dam breaks. No one is upset at the use of equipment during natural disasters, but some departments use military vehicles to serve simple warrants.
Last month, Congress had a chance to rein in this program. But the House of Repre
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