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Halt program that militarizes U.S. police forces

by Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers

Reuters

There is a growing bipartisan public outrage about the local police force’s fiercely militarized response to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

From Democrats to Republicans, progressive to libertarian, citizens across the political spectrum are denouncing the efforts to stop demonstrations over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American teenager.

Legislators are also speaking out against this militarization of police. Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash described the situation as “frightening.” Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, a moderate, called the police tactics “the problem instead of the solution.” Meanwhile, libertarian Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul stated flatly in an op-ed, “We must de-militarize the police.”

Americans have been stunned to see pictures of police driving armored vehicles through neighborhoods, brandishing weapons of war at unarmed citizens.

But this is nothing new. In October 2013, Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) were regularly finding their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. They were the latest acquisitions in a growing Pentagon practice that’s militarizing America’s municipal police forces.

In that one month, police departments in Boise and Nampa, Idaho, each acquired an MRAP, as did the force in High Springs, Florida. The offer of war-ready machinery, at practically no cost, has proven hard to resist for local police departments. They look increasingly like soldiers equipped for battle.

The growing similarity between our domestic police forces and the U.S. military is a result of the Pentagon’s 1033 Program. This allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment and weapons to law enforcement agencies. In addition to the frightening presence of paramilitary weapons in American towns, the program has led to rampant fraud and abuse.

It does not have to be this way. Congress can, and must, take decisive steps to scale back the program and demilitarize American police forces. Here’s how to do it.

First, Congress should permanently ban the transfer of all military-grade equipment to our cities. The program has already transferred enough impractical machinery to local police forces — material that many police departments do not have the skill to use safely or the money to maintain. Georgia’s Cobb County, for example, acquired one AR-15 assault rifle for each of its patrol vehicles, while Tupelo, Mississippi, received a helicopter that needed $100,000 worth of upgrades and $20,000 each year in maintenance.

Second, strict oversight must be implemented and consistently enforced if the Pentagon insists on continuing the program. Congress must step up to manage the program by setting new rules and restrictions. Localities not in full compliance must be barred from participation in the program.

Shocking, almost comical, examples of abuse have been well-documented — from the officer who sold his weapons on eBay, to the one who lent his weapons to unauthorized friends and the police departments that lost the military weapons or tried to auction them off.

Now is the time for our policymakers to demand more from the Defense Department. In order to participate, law enforcement agencies should be able to account for 100 percent of the equipment they receive every year. This should be a no-brainer.

If they cannot, they should be removed from the program. If state coordinators do not verify compliance in person, the states should be removed from the program. And if the Defense Department cannot successfully report full compliance to Congress every year, the program should be suspended.

It is unacceptable for U.S. police to receive such hazardous weapons and equipment without oversight. It is particularly unacceptable for those who have proven to be incompetent, wasteful or irresponsible with the equipment they have received to remain eligible for more free items.

Ultimately it is Congress’ responsibility to protect its constituents’ safety and financial interests, which could be threatened by the program mismanagement.

Unless Americans want their towns patrolled by armored military vehicles, their skies humming with drones, and their local police officers equipped with assault weapons, they should ask Congress to scale the program back.

Taxpayer money should not have to support the costs of maintaining the weapons of war that local police forces have acquired. Citizens deserve to know that their congressional leaders and law enforcement officers are working together to protect them — not recklessly engaging in a gluttonous arms race or irresponsibly losing dangerous weapons.

Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Elizabeth Beavers is the program assistant for foreign policy at the committee. The opinions expressed here are their own.