By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Last week, Washington lawmakers grilled officials from the Defense Department (DOD), Homeland Security and the Department of Justice over programs that sent equipment and money to state and local law enforcement agencies. Experts say those resources ultimately contributed to the militarization of police departments nationwide.
The stunning images of police decked out in fatigues, menacing peaceful protesters with assault rifles, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets into mixed crowds that included children, shocked many who witnessed the local law enforcement response to the unrest that engulfed Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a White 6-year veteran police officer.
During a hearing on federal programs that support state and local law enforcement groups, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that she was shocked and saddened as she watched events unfold in Ferguson, Mo., in the weeks after Brown’s death and said that most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in the St. Louis suburb being transformed into a warzone complete with camouflage, armored vehicles and laser sights on assault rifles.
“Those lawful, peaceful protesters on that Wednesday afternoon in Ferguson, Mo., did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants,” said McCaskill.
McCaskill noted that the Defense Department’s 1033 program, authorized in 1997, allows the DOD to send surplus equipment to state and local law enforcement for free.
“Much of the equipment from the program is as mundane as office furniture and microwaves,” said McCaskill. “But the Department of Defense is also giving local law enforcement million-dollar tactical vehicles, including its mine resistant ambush protected vehicle or MRAP.”
MRAPs are built to withstand roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices.
“These are vehicles that are so heavy that they can tear up roads,” said McCaskill.
During the Senate hearing, Alan Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics at DOD, said that the department shared $1.9 million in excess equipment with state and local law enforcement agencies. Most of the items were considered “uncontrolled equipment,” such as office furniture, filing cabinets, medical kits and tool kits.
The Ferguson, Mo., police department received two Humvees, one generator and one cargo trailer from the DOD, according to Estevez. The St. Louis County police department acquired six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, one ordinance disposal robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees and two night vision devices
Estevez said that state coordinators determine the need for local law enforcement.
But McCaskill said that the Defense Department’s own records show that, in the last three years, DOD has given 624 MRAPs to state and local law enforcement agencies, “seemingly without regard to the need or size of the agency that received them.”
“In Texas, for example, local law enforcement agencies have 73 MRAPs, the National Guard has only six,” said McCaskill. “In Florida, local police departments have 45 MRAPs and the National Guard has zero.”
She questioned whether state and local law enforcement even needed the equipment.
McCaskill said that according to the Defense Logistics Agency nearly 40 percent of the equipment given away to law enforcement is new.
“It doesn’t appear that buying new equipment and then giving it away and spending more money to replace it is an effective use of the Defense Department resources,” said McCaskill.
Proponents of the programs have argued that the resources are essential in helping local law enforcement fight terrorism in a post-9/11 world. When Senator Thomas Coburn (R-Okla.) asked Brian Kamoie, the assistant administrator for Grant Programs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the Department of Homeland Security to recall the last event that required local law enforcement to use equipment they received through the program for counter-terrorism efforts, the FEMA official was at a loss for words.
Kamoie settled on the 2010 failed bombing attempt in Times Square in New York City and during the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.
Kamoie testified that a grant-funded, forward-looking infrared camera mounted on a Massachusetts state helicopter helped police locate Tsarnaev, a point Coburn soundly refuted. The Oklahoma senator said that a homeowner in Watertown, Mass., found Tsarnaev in his boat and called 911.
“One of the key lessons learned during United States military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan was the idea that we had to win the hearts and minds of the citizens there,” said McCaskill. “I find it ironic that at the same time we are embracing those tactics as strong evidence of progress against the insurgency, we are in fact undermining the organization of our domestic police departments.”
Peter Kraska, a professor at the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, said that the clear distinction between our civilian police and our military is blurring in significant and consequential ways.
“What we saw play out in Ferguson was the application of a very common mindset, style of uniform, appearance and weaponry used every day in the homes of private residences during SWAT raids,” said during the hearing.
According to Kraska, who specializes in criminal justice theory, police and criminal justice militarization, the total number of police paramilitary deployments, or call-outs has increased by 1,300 percent between 1980 and the year 2000.
In a statement submitted to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Kraska estimated that by 2007, there were an estimated 60,000 SWAT team deployments.
“And it is the poor and communities of color that are the most impacted,” said Kraska.
According to a report on the militarization of American policing by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit group that defends individual freedoms and constitutional rights, “42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino.”
Kraska said that it is no coincidence that the skyrocketing number of police paramilitary deployments on American citizens since the 1980s coincides perfectly with the skyrocketing imprisonment numbers.
The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group that promotes reforms in the criminal justice system reported that almost 40 percent of people in state or federal prisons are Black and that almost half of the people serving time in state prisons in 2011 were locked up for non-violent drug offenses.
“It is hard to imagine that anyone intended for the wars on crime, drugs and terrorism to devolve into widespread police militarization. At the same time, we have opened the door for outfitting our police to be soldiers with a warrior mindset,” said Kraska. “These wars have been devastating to minority communities and the marginalized and have resulted in the self-perpetuating growth complex. Cutting off the supply of military weaponry to our civilian police is the least we can do to begin the process of reigning in police militarization.”
In a written testimony submitted to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Hilary Shelton, the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the NAACP, said that the group has long advocated for a change in the paradigm, which has driven our criminal justice system.
In his statement, Shelton called for the adoption of “use of force” principles to be incorporated into the “Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act” and that any law enforcement agency which receives federal funding or participates in equipment transfer programs such as the Defense Department’s 1033 program show proof of annual training for all personnel on the appropriate use of force. Shelton also said that police officers need anti-racial profiling training.
“We need to move away from the failed scenario of declaring ‘war’ on the American people, whether it be the ‘War on Drugs,’ or a ‘War on Crime,’ and law enforcement needs to be trained to stop stereotyping people based on what they look like, the clothes they wear, the color of their skin, or the neighborhoods in which they live,” said Shelton. “Above all, law enforcement at every level, local, state, and federal, should stop perceiving the citizens who they are hired to protect and serve as ‘the enemy.’”