In a brilliant August 17 segment of Last Week Tonight, HBO host John Oliver ripped into small towns that have equipped their police with warlike military equipment. One town was Keene, New Hampshire, where their military-grade armored personnel truck was acquired to protect critical targets – like the annual Pumpkin Festival. Another was Doraville, Georgia. Oliver showed a wild video clip from the Doraville Police Department’s website, with a Ninja-dressed SWAT team going for a joyride in a souped-up armored personnel carrier, all set to a heavy metal song called "Die MotherF***er Die."
In a visit to Doraville last week, I asked Officer Gene Callaway why his sleepy town of 8,000, which hasn’t had a murder since 2009, needed an armored personnel carrier (APC). "The vehicle provides Doraville with a scalable response and ensures the safety of police officers," he answered. Scalable response? Safety of police officers? Doraville has never been a crime-ridden town. "We at Doraville are proud to be ranked 39th in safest cities in Georgia," Callaway himself bragged. It seems the most useful task the APC performed was pulling 18-wheelers back onto the salted lanes of Route 285 during snowstorms. Oh, and let’s not forget that "the kids love playing on it" when it rolls up to the county fair, Callaway told me.
Doraville’s armored vehicle is a gift from Uncle Sam, as part of the billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment now flowing from the federal government to state and local police departments. Not only is it an incredible waste of taxpayer money, but it gets people – including children – accustomed to seeing military vehicles on their streets. Worst of all, it is causing police to act like soldiers, especially since one of the stipulations of getting this equipment is that it must be used within one year of receipt.
The Doraville Police, embarrassed by the negative publicity from their video, took it down (they insist that the theme music was unauthorized). Now on their website you can see much more benevolent images, such as three smiling police officers, one dressed as Santa Claus, with two young girls who are the recipients of the "Santa Pop Program" that pairs police with "less-fortunate children."
But let’s face it. Military toys, constantly dangled before the police at law enforcement exhibits and fairs, are hard to resist. And with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security giving out this stuff for free, why not get some hand-me-downs? Doraville and Keene are just two of thousands of cities and towns throughout the nation that have successfully applied for surplus equipment from a federal government agency.
Your head will spin if you take a look at this map the New York Times published on August 21. It lists the counties that have received military surplus and the supplies they’ve received. The acquisitions under the Department of Defense (DOD) program since its inception in 1991 are valued at $5.1 billion, with $449.3 million given out in fiscal year 2013 alone. In just the past 5 years, as part of Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, the Pentagon has given away "tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft" to counties in every state throughout the country.
While attention is now focused on the DOD’s program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a program that is three times the size. This year alone, DHS plans to give away $1.6 billion worth of military equipment for counterterrorism, border security and disaster preparedness. Thanks to DHS, every squad car in Fargo, North Dakota, has assault rifles and kevlar helmets and 1,500 beat cops in Philadelphia are trained to use AR-15s.
DHS is also giving out money for a few dozen police departments to experiment with drones. When the Federal Aviation Administration opens US airspace to drones in the coming years, civil liberty advocates fear that the nation’s 18,000 police departments will be lining up for DHS grants to get their latest toy – a toy that has the capacity to spy, stun, maim and kill.
This is already starting. In May 2012, DHS began distributing $4 million in experimental grants to help local law enforcement agencies buy their own small drones, opening a new market for politically connected drone makers as the wars overseas shrink. The sheriff’s department in Montgomery County, Texas received a $250,000 grant to buy a drone, which in April 2014 crashed into Lake Conroe and was destroyed. In 2013, citizens of Seattle pressured police into returning two drones they had received from DHS grants for $82,000. The drones were then pawned off on the LA Police Department, which is now facing a citizen backlash to get rid of them.
In the past, Congress has done nothing to rollback the handouts. When Congressman Alan Grayson introduced legislation in June to limit funding to the 1033 program, it was quashed by an overwhelming vote of 355-62, including 35 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who voted against it. House Democrats reportedly voted against Grayson’s legislation because it’s "hard to say ‘no’ to your local police chief when they are explaining to you how this equipment could help and in what type of situation."
But the killing of Michael Brown and Ferguson’s subsequent conversion into a warzone is leading to a critical discussion on racism and police power in America, and also to a new awareness about how our police forces have become more and more like the military.
United States Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) has plans to try again in September, when Congress reconvenes. He is introducing a bill that would ban police departments from receiving armored vehicles, armored drones, high caliber weapons, gun silencers, and stun grenades under the Defense Department’s 1033 Program.
Given the roadblocks to get any bill passed in Congress, though, it’s critical to put pressure on state and local governments to opt out of receiving military equipment. CODEPINK has launched a campaign for people to pressure their local governments to pass resolutions pledging not to apply for nor accept military gear from the Defense Department or the Department of Homeland Security and to decommission supplies they already have.
Our police departments should not become dumping grounds for weapons makers looking for new clients to replace sales for waning wars abroad. Nor should they be repressive agencies that treat the public, especially black men, like enemies. Nor should they be militarized to deal with real or imagined threats of terrorism. Counterterrorism is supposed to be under the purview of the Pentagon, FBI, CIA, NSA and more.
There is simply no reason for police to be armed like the military. As the ACLU says in its excellent report War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, "Our neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies." The police must be made to "protect and serve" our communities, not wage war on the people who live in them.