The Militarization of U.S. Police

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri provide the latest example of the militarization of U.S. police forces. The tactics used by police as well as their equipment should be cause for concern to anybody. Granted, protestors were looting, engaging in violence, and attacking police with Molotov cocktails; not exactly a friendly situation. On the other hand, the sight of police in armor using stun grenades on street protestors while armed with sniper rifles and in vehicles meant for the battlefield is disheartening. These images are those that we typically see in the Middle East or in those of corrupt totalitarian states, not the U.S. As a result of outcries emanating from across the spectrum, President Obama has ordered congress to conduct a review of the militarization of police and I support it.

Police forces bean to acquire surplus military equipment through the Defense Logistics Agency since 1990 through the 1033 Program and its successors. This has allowed even the smallest of police forces to acquire heavy body armor, heavy rifles, and vehicles such as APCs (armored personnel carriers) and MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected). Originally the idea was to give police involved in the war on drugs the means to combat criminals who were more heavily armed than them. That though doesn't seem to be the case anymore as heavy weapons are flowing into practically any police department that requests them. Some of the sleepiest towns in the U.S. now count in their inventory military grade weapons and hardware.

A lot of the equipment is being offered at minimal cost or absolutely free. One reason for this is that in the wake of two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and with a Department of Defense that has a habit of over-procuring weapons, there is much surplus weaponry. One common cited example of the militarization of police is the increasing appearance of MRAPs in police forces. The MRAP was designed specifically to counter the threat posed by IED's (improvised explosives device) in Iraq and Afghanistan. These weapons played havoc with existing armored vehicles such as Humvees which were not properly armored on their underside. As a result the MRAP was designed as a tall vehicle with a V-shaped bottom that could deflect an IED. It was tremendously successful.

Now with those conflicts over now there is no need for the military to retain large numbers of MRAPS. In all honesty, they aren't very versatile. They have a habit of rolling over, are horrible off-road, and pose a logistics nightmare due to their size and the multiple types from different manufacturers we field. We overproduced them, don't need them anymore, and we aren't finding many foreign buyers for them. Now here is one point that I feel isn't being made enough. We can't just scrap them; how does that benefit the military industrial complex. Just think, by offering them to police departments they can stay in service and the original manufacturers can still profit off of refitting them and providing parts and servicing.

On the other hand, why in all honesty does a small town local police department need an armored vehicle such as an MRAP or for that matter, grenade launchers? In the past police forces, specifically SWAT teams have used both. Now we find small town police forces armed for battlefield combat raiding people's homes to search for small amounts of cannabis or for reasons where there was no physical threat. The NYPD which at over 34,000 in number and larger than some cities that have armored vehicles only has around 10 of them. This is understandable as New York City is the largest city in the U.S., a top target for terrorists and arguably the most important city in the world. But what of the case of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina which has several Humvees and an MRAP and whose population is around 16,000? True such vehicles in small towns can be used for other purposes such as in emergencies and rescues but do these towns also need stun grenades and more automatic rifles than they have officers?

It's not just the equipment that these police forces are acquiring; it's also their methods and tactics. The police response to the riots in Ferguson have been heavily criticized as being escalatory, aggressive, and ineffective. The sight of such heavy equipment rather than scaring away protestors instead escalated the situation. Police who have next to no training in handling riots or urban pacification approached the situation bluntly. When police are over-armed and undertrained for the situation at hand it is a recipe for disaster. I'm in no way condoning the violence of the protestors but the actions of the police were heavy handed and probably contributed to furthering the violence. The scenes of Ferguson are what one would expect on an evening news show of a situation in the Middle East or elsewhere. Police training laser sights on protestors and hurling stun grenades is something we should not hope to see again in the U.S. One must also take into account the trust deficit which has emerged between the citizenry and the police.

Just because police departments can cheaply and easily acquire heavy weaponry doesn't mean they should. In many cases there is no need for such equipment and small departments will be hard pressed with limited budgets to maintain the equipment. Proper training should accompany transfers of such equipment so that they can be used properly and effectively. The president is right to demand a congressional investigation of the programs that allow for the transfers of military weaponry. He isn't the first though. Evidence has shown that the programs are full of flaws; equipment has been used improperly and in some cases can't be accounted for. The protests in Ferguson luckily didn't result in anyone being killed in altercations between protestors and police. In so much, we should deal with this issue now rather than waiting for such an event to occur and then to act.

Posted by SPBrooker at August 28, 2014 9:59 AM
Comment #382618

I have been in MRAPs. They have no civilian use under anything like normal conditions. They break down a lot and you don’t ask how many miles they get on a gallon of fuel but rather how many gallons per mile.

I like the Andy of Mayberry type of cop.

I think both left and right agree that militarization of the cops is bad. But it has developed its own momentum. We demand a level of safety that cannot be obtained and a level of professionalism beyond a reasonable human reach. So we push for more.

We need to lighten up. This is much harder than it seems. I deal with security people and generally try to avoid their dictates. They often go to the extreme. “Do you want to die,” they ask. I do not. But when I consider the risk low enough, I am willing to chance it.

But consider this. The ONE incident that happens causes so much blame that police must play maximum defense. They are a lot like doctors faced with the threat of malpractice. Cover ever possibility, no matter who improbable.

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Comment #382619

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Posted by: yutryret at August 28, 2014 1:39 PM
Comment #382620


“We demand a level of safety that cannot be obtained and a level of professionalism beyond a reasonable human reach. So we push for more.”

We all want to return to the time of Andy and Barney. Nobody want’s to see armoured vehicles roving our streets. The problem of the militarization isn’t about our safety, it’s about the safety of the police.

Much was made in the ’80s about the police being “outgunned” by the gangs they were having to deal with, and thus the die was cast.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at August 28, 2014 7:07 PM
Comment #382621

Exactly, Rocky Marts. So why not get rid of the gangs and get back to Mayberry style policing?

Seems we live in a world where folks don’t mind getting shot at, beat up and so on but, can’t find it in their hearts to put gang members on the rock pile, and so on - - -

Posted by: roy ellis at August 28, 2014 7:29 PM
Comment #382623

My father was a policeman in a large urban northeast city from the end of the war until the late eighties. He used to tell me that the worst thing that ever happened to policing was when they all got into cars and abandoned street beats.

As a supervising officer, he understood the advantages of response time, etc. but he lamented the loss of personal ownership, responsibility and relationships that came with a walking beat. He told me that when he first came on the force, that his old sergeants held him accountable for anything and everything that happened on his beat. “I thought they were going to give me the mortgage bill for everyone on my beat.” Most importantly, he knew everybody on his beat, good and bad.

Today, there is a movement back to basic beat policing, the community policing approach. It has been lacking for decades. It needs to be supported. The idea of police being some separate entity or even an enemy of the community needs to be countered. There is always going to be the need for “force” but it needs to be used judiciously and with knowledge of the community. That is what seems to have been lacking in Ferguson. Get the police out of their cars, get the shields off their faces and I think that more good can be accomplished.

Posted by: Rich at August 28, 2014 8:46 PM
Comment #382641


The crime bill authorizes money to increase the number of police in America by twenty percent.

Back then, when this happened, I asked my neighbors what they thought about their local autonomy and it’s value after the federal government starts paying for their police force. I really didn’t get an answer from anyone. They didn’t think of it as a federal takeover of their local police force. They saw it as free money to go into the friends and family employment fund.

I also pointed out that after this money runs dry the local government will be on the hook to pay for the extra police that were hired. The union would make sure they kept their job and the local government would have to pick up the tab.

About that same time David B. Kopel was saying the same thing.

On the Firing Line: Clinton’s Crime Bill

A Standing Army But no cheers are due for the proposal for federal funding for 50,000 new police officers.
To pretend that federal funding of policing will have any result other than to gradually bring local police forces under the command of a federal police czar is unrealistic.
Troops to cops sounds like a nice idea — training retiring military veterans to take police jobs. But do we really want the police to become even more like the military — to focus on capturing an area and destroying an enemy, to rely heavily on high-tech assaults, with, understandably in a military context, no regard for the rights of persons being attacked, and only scant regard for the safety of bystanders?
Will America really be freer and safer by taking more giant steps toward a federal standing army involved in domestic law enforcement?

That was in 1993. He suggests a path to address some of the concerns brought up, but based on our present situation I don’t think many of the suggestions were adopted.

Back then, when I was trying to get people to realize what was happening with their governments, I tried to describe what I had endured. I said:

At the time I felt like a bee bumping against the glass. By the time it was over I felt like a bird hitting the windshield.

So, here we are, 20 years later, asking ourselves the same questions. Except this time the military and police are 20 years more advanced.

You have to come to this conclusion. In 20 years our children will be asking if it’s a good thing to have a militarized police force, and again, after the police and military are 20 more years advanced.

Posted by: Weary Willie at August 29, 2014 12:52 AM
Comment #382645

Gas consumption has dropped every year during the Obama administration, due to increased fuel efficiency and the cash for clunkers program. In addition, a revolution in electric cars will make gas-powered vehicles obsolete.

In the next few years, Tesla will introduce a mid-range priced sedan, a pick-up, and a SUV. The vehicles are safer and cost less to maintain than traditional vehicles. The company is already valued at half the price of GM, and it has not even begun to make the real money. China just authorized 400 charging stations.

The end of a gas and oil driven economy is in sight. And what that means is that is would be foolish to invest heavily in additional long-term development or infrastructure for oil, such as pipelines carrying the dirtiest oil from Canada, across the US, and to the Texas refineries for shipment overseas. Again, for the long-term, it makes no economic sense.

Posted by: phx8 at August 29, 2014 2:06 PM
Comment #382649

Isn’t this interesting…

“WASHINGTON — President Obama is considering a delay of his most controversial proposals to revamp immigration laws through executive action until after the midterm elections in November, mindful of the electoral peril for Democratic Senate candidates, according to allies of the administration who have knowledge of White House deliberations.”

If the immigration reform the dems want is so popular, why not make it an election issue? Are the dems merely hypocrites?

Posted by: Royal Flush at August 30, 2014 11:45 AM
Comment #382650

I thought this would be an issue that we can all agree on, but it seems I was wrong. In my local paper the editor wrote and editorial telling us tunnel vision makes it hard to see both sides and ends up blaming the killing on the victim. In addition 4 people presumably chosen at random were asked “Do you think that local police departments should be equipped with military style weapons” and in summary the responses were”it depends on the demographics of the town”, “Part of me wouldn’t but I have friends on the force and would like to see them as well equipped as possible”,”just the bigger cities because there is more violence” and “yes, there are lots of incidents happening that requires extra force”!

Now before every one makes assumptions to justify their opinions let me say I live in a small town that is 3/4 conservatives/libertarian when it comes to voting statistics. (In fact our county was one of the counties that had a ballot measure calling for us to secede from the state of Colorado because the dems won control of the state legislature.)

It seems we value safety over liberty and control over freedom especially when it comes to others getting killed. We glorify violence and are afraid enough of dems controlling the government that we are in an arms race. We believe the ammo shortage is due to the government hoarding it. We walk the streets, stores and restaurants (not to mention protest) armed with assault….oops I meant “modern sporting rifles” and such. Yet we expect our government and law enforcement to be different, but it seems they are not. I suggest it is the training and mentality they have towards those they “serve and protect” that is the real problem.

Posted by: j2t2 at August 30, 2014 12:06 PM
Comment #382651

Royal Flush,
Why should Obama make an announcement about immigration before the 2014 midterms? Only one state has enough of a Hispanic voting bloc to even matter, and that is CO. For the other states, an announcement on immigration simply wouldn’t affect the outcome. Since polls currently show the Democrats with a slight edge for holding a Senate majority, there is no reason not to hold onto that card, and wait for a more auspicious moment to make the announcement in order to reap the full value, and achieve the primary goal: the White House, a liberal SOTUS majority, control of the House, and a supermajority in the Senate. All of these are well within reach.

Regardless of the upcoming midterm, the real goal is 2016.

Remember, keep your eyes on the prize.

Posted by: phx8 at August 30, 2014 3:15 PM
Comment #382652

phx8, your boy obama wakes up in a new world every day. He shoots off his mouth but can’t back it up with deeds. The party is begging him to keep his mouth shut and signing pen in his pocket.

You and I understand the politics, your boy doesn’t give a shit.

Posted by: Royal Flush at August 30, 2014 4:35 PM
Comment #382653

phx8 wrote; “Since polls currently show the Democrats with a slight edge for holding a Senate majority…”

Really? Real Clear Politics shows 45 solid Dem, 46 solid Rep, and nine tossups with seven of those seats belonging to Dems.

Please explain your reasoning.

Posted by: Royal Flush at August 30, 2014 4:55 PM
Comment #382654

Interesting link. If you like following this kind of thing, you might check the article, even though it is on a liberal site- Daily Kos. This liberal site is usually an excellent resource for polling information- I find it considerably more useful than RCP, which only gives a bird’s eye view through unweighted averages of a variety of pollsters.

Posted by: phx8 at August 30, 2014 5:55 PM
Comment #382773
phx8, your boy obama wakes up in a new world every day.
Another example of implicitly (if not explicitly) racist language from the right. To be immediately followed by “who me?”. Posted by: Dave at September 4, 2014 12:47 PM
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