Police Swat Team at Work
Credit: iStock

As tens of thousands of Americans took to U.S. streets over the past two weeks to protest the brutal killing of George Floyd in police custody, one image has become an icon of this cultural moment: a wall of heavily-armed police in riot gear confronting unarmed protesters. These overwhelming shows of force prove what many police reform advocates have long argued: the increasing militarization of the American police.

In fact, scenes like we’ve seen in recent weeks are nothing new. In 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police donned camouflage vests, rode armored vehicles, and used pepper spray, rubber bullets, and tear gasto suppress protests. That was the same kind of response that met demonstrators in Baltimore after the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray. Similar episodes have erupted elsewhere throughout the nation.

Aiding and abetting this aggression is the military-grade weaponry and armor now employed by many police forces—enabled in part by the free flow of arms from the federal government to local police. That’s because of the so-called 1033 Program, which was created by Congress in the 1990s as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Since its inception, the U.S. Defense Department has doled out more than $7.2 billion in weapons and gear, including armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, and other items that have no place on our streets. The initial intent of the program was to provide local law enforcement with the needed resources to combat the “war on terror” and the “war on drugs.” Instead, the war that’s being waged is against communities of color, especially when they dare to protest yet another killing of an unarmed black man by a white officer.

As it stands, the Section 1033 program is a deadly pipeline that is turning American cities into battlefields. That’s why House Democrats have rightly proposed to curtail it in their new police reform legislation, called the Justice in Policing Act. In addition to banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, the bill would ban the transfer of certain kinds of military equipment to local police, including bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades, armored drones, armored vehicles, and silencers.

Weapons like these have no place in policing. Their only function is to turn cops into soldiers who treat members of their communities like enemy combatants, not citizens they are supposed to protect and serve. Now that the time has arrived for genuine reform, it’s time to rid U.S. streets of the weapons of war. Ending the 1033 program would be a good start.

Under Section 1033, local police departments can apply for surplus military equipment that the Defense Department would otherwise destroy or leave unused. Police departments pay only for shipping, and the program can be a boon for cash-strapped community forces. According to a spreadsheet maintained by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which administers the effort, more than 8,000 police and sheriff’s departments across the country have taken advantage of the program to acquire everything from office furniture to parkas to toolboxes and pickup trucks. But they have also used the program to acquire immense stockpiles of weapons, often in enormous disproportion to what they need.

The Chambers County Sheriff’s Department in rural Alabama, for instance, has acquired at least $1.7 million in surplus military equipment under the program since 2002, including more than two dozen 5.56 millimeter rifles, two “observation helicopters,” six bulletproof “ballistic blankets” and a mine-resistant vehicle. Chambers County has a population of just 33,254 and reported zero violent crimes in 2018, according to the FBI. (Unsurprisingly, it experienced no incidents involving mines.) Meanwhile, in Bartow County, Georgia, population 107,000, the sheriff’s department currently holds 52 shotguns, “12 gauge, riot-type,” and 155 rifles (both 5.56 and 7.62 millimeter), according to the DLA’s inventory. That’s one high-powered military weapon for every 516 residents.

To be sure, scholars caution that easy access to this kind of weaponry is not necessarily the root cause of police militarization. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned law professor at the University of South Carolina, blames police culture and training for inculcating what he calls a “warrior” mindset that teaches officers to live in fear. As he wrote in a 2015 article for the Harvard Law Review, “Officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making. … Everyone is a threat until conclusively proven otherwise.”

Researcher Edward Lawson, who authored a dissertation on police militarization, says police departments’ military gear likely reflects their militarization, rather than causes it. “Police become militarized psychologically and start seeing themselves as soldiers fighting this war on the front lines and occupying unfriendly enemy territory,” he said. “They want to equip themselves as soldiers as a result.”

There’s little question, however, that Section 1033 has helped police departments fulfill that soldierly self-image. The U.S. drawdown from Iraq freed up scads of military equipment later distributed under Section 1033, including hundreds of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles like the one obtained by Chambers County. A 2014 report from the ACLU found that at least 500 local law enforcement agencies had used the program to acquire MRAPs, each of which the government values at more than $700,000. Originally designed to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine their usefulness on the streets of LaFayette, Alabama, Chambers County’s seat

Having all this weaponry moreover makes it easier for officers to act on a warrior mindset to deadlier effect.

That’s perhaps most reflected in the proliferation and over-use of SWAT teams. While their presence is now ubiquitous, there are genuinely few scenarios—such as an active shooter or a hostage situation—that need a SWAT team’s firepower and expertise. As a result, many of the roughly 9,000 SWAT teams now active around the country have been pressed into service for tasks that don’t justify their use. As Stoughton said by email: “The problem is not that agencies and officers have [military] equipment and tactics, it is that the equipment and tactics are being used far more often than they should be.”

In a 2014 report, the ACLU found that as many as 79 percent of 800 SWAT deployments from 2011 and 2012 involved searching people’s homes, primarily to look for drugs. These raids brought an unnecessary level of risk to people’s lives and property, the ACLU charged. “SWAT raids are undoubtedly violent events: numerous (often 20 or more) officers armed with assault rifles and grenades approach a home, break down doors and windows (often causing property damage), and scream for the people inside to get on the floor (often pointing their guns at them),” the report found.

Worse yet, these excessive deployments are often discriminatory. Princeton University researcher Jonathan Mummolo studied SWAT deployments in Maryland from 2010 to 2014 and found that the percentage of black residents in any given zip code “strongly predicts the volume of SWAT activity.”

While limiting police access to military hardware will not by itself demilitarize police units, it could still save lives. In his study analyzing the correlation between usage of the Section 1033 program and police-related fatalities, Lawson found that the most heavily militarized police departments were also the most deadly. The reason, Lawson writes, is that militarization “shifts behavior toward lethal force as a more acceptable and earlier response.”

There is another urgent reason to reverse Section 1033 and demilitarize the police: It’s a necessary step to shift public perceptions of  cops as “warriors” to that of “guardians,” as reformers often advocate.

“When the police patrol the streets with armored personnel carriers, some of which are mine-resistant; when the police use military weapons, helicopters, bayonets, or disperse riots with various grenades; when SWAT teams cover themselves with masks to conceal their identity, they create a shock and awe effect that is designed to create a menacing presence,” wrote Eliav Lieblich and Adam Shinar in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law. In other words, how police equip themselves is central to their relationship with their communities.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13688, which established a working group charged with paring back the excesses of the 1033 program. Among other things, the group recommended barring local law enforcement agencies from acquiring some equipment altogether, such as grenade launchers and bayonets; requiring justification for acquiring other types of gear, such as explosives and armored vehicles; and increasing Defense Department oversight of where these weapons end up. It seemed to be effective: In the year following the order, the DOD recalled 138 grenade launchers, 126 grenade launchers and more than 1,600 bayonets.

Then, in 2017, at the urging of law enforcement groups, President Donald Trump issued his own executive order rescinding these reforms. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” said then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announcing the order at a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump in 2016.

The new reforms proposed by House Democrats would restore the kinds of limits imposed by the Obama administration but codify them into federal law.

The House bill would also tighten the program’s oversight and recordkeeping, which government audits have found to be exceedingly lax. For instance, the DLA’s inventory only tracks the equipment that police and sheriff’s departments currently have, but not equipment that was lost or destroyed—or that has for whatever reason disappeared.

For years, government auditors have charged the program with failing to ensure that agencies use the equipment they get appropriately. The result has been a fair share of scandal. In 2012, the Arizona Republic discovered that the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department had stockpiled $7 million in equipment from the 1033 Program with the intention of auctioning it later. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office created fake police officers who succeeded in getting $1.2 million of equipment, including night vision goggles and simulated pipe bombs.

Scholars like Edward Lawson maintain that ending the Section 1033 program is “necessary but not sufficient” to bring about true police reform. “Ending the practice of giving this equipment for free is a good idea and we should do it, but it’s not going to change the cultural problems, the socialization problems and the training problems,” he said.

That may be true, but it will still be a critical first step toward restoring the proper role of police in their communities and reducing the violence and brutality that has cost so many black lives.

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Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.