“Homeland security” — two simple words that have justified the dramatic increase in funding to police forces. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress approved large sums, still flowing today, to make police forces more capable of handling increased levels of force they may face. With this increase in funding, according to Glenn Greenwald of “The Intercept,” police forces are acting more like an invading army, rather than an organization that is there to protect and serve the public’s well-being. Some of the first papers warning of police acting like militaries were published in 2007, defining police militarization as “the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.” Even with papers being published warning of possible outcomes of police militarization, the story remained relatively off the radar.
In recent months, a reportedly unarmed African American teen Michael Brown was shot and killed in the suburb of Ferguson, Mo. The shooting, although in a small town, swept the nation’s headlines and brought much controversy along with it. Out of this controversy, a new one ignited: the militarization of local police forces. During a vigil for Brown, the Ferguson crowd became unruly; the police then responded with 150 armed Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) members to control the crowd. The Ferguson police’s military-grade weapons and vehicles disturbed and outraged many citizens across the country, many of whom felt it was an unreasonable use of force.
Surprisingly, however, it is not uncommon today for military-style gear to be in the police’s armory: “Local police departments across the country deploy not just military style equipment, but actual castoffs from the U.S. military,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek. This is the leading catalyst of discussion among people located around the country and lends itself to the question of whether or not towns or cities of any size should hold such powerful means of weaponry. “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul wrote.
Even colleges and universities across the country are becoming more militarized. If you look at our sister campus UC Berkeley, their police department was granted funds to purchase an “Armored Response Counter Attack Truck.” This vehicle is typically used for a battlefield. A military vehicle is not necessary for a college campus, let alone of this scale and magnitude. In my opinion, the rate of murder and mass murder on campuses could not possibly justify the extreme solution proposed. The only thing that is accomplished by the purchase of vehicles like this is scaring the people they have been charged with protecting and serving. Scaring the public is not a part of public service.
A situation developing closer to UCR is that Riverside county government agencies have received approximately 234 assault rifles, two armored vehicles, a helicopter and an MRAP. This means the possibility of more aggressive reactions to crime or potential crime in the area as well as the UCR campus itself.
Many senators have come out and said they do not agree with federal programs that outfit police departments with military gear. The Senate hearing on the topic of police having military-style capabilities stated, “They waste funds and sow mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they police.”
Senators are beginning to make changes to U.S. law in an attempt to reduce the amount of military-style gear. One of the provisions that the Senate is looking at changing is the Defense Department’s distribution of 617 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. With U.S. combat operations drawing down in the Middle East, military vehicles have been finding their way to smaller and smaller towns because the vehicles are no longer needed in the Middle East. The worst part about the police getting these vehicles is that they are almost never trained on how and when to properly use the vehicles they have acquired.
But this is only a means of putting the brakes on such uses of force. Much more action from the Senate and House must be taken if we want to reduce and stop the militarization of police departments. A key area that the Senate and House need to look at is how the Defense Department deals with the leftover military equipment after a conflict has ended. Vehicles and weapons should be turned into scrap and sold off or used to maintain current military arms.
In the era of social media, using the tools available to raise outside support will be how citizens protect themselves against these abuses. Sharing testimony will be the key to putting a halt to those overstepping their bounds. With the overwhelming collective voice that is now possible with the Internet, it is much more apparent to Congress than ever before what the pulse of the nation is, and it is now more obvious when they ignore what the American people want: a less aggressive and less military-like police force.
It seems there are more stories circulating about the abuses of police power than actually aiding in conflicts that require such force. There seems to be more discussion of the fears of overstepping boundaries than the actual saving of lives or prevention of disaster. Hopefully with public action and vigilance, police militarization can be tackled and brought to a less aggressive level.