Cops don’t need tanks or grenade launchers
With a deranged narcissist in the Oval Office and his lackey controlling the Department of Justice, there is no point looking to the federal government to curb police violence. Instead, President Donald J. Trump will do everything in his power to encourage it. In the wake of protests over the murder of George Floyd, he has demanded that governors crack down on protestors: “You have to dominate . . If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he told them.
Moreover, local police authorities are under local control — mayors, city councils, district attorneys, police chiefs, sheriffs. That’s where the accountability for police misconduct begins.
But Congress could take a significant step toward reining in that misconduct by passing a bill to end the practice of allowing the Pentagon to give surplus war equipment to local police departments. There is simply no good reason for police in any city —from Washington to Wichita — to roll down the streets in armored personnel carriers, armed with battering rams and grenade launchers. They are not going to war. American citizens are not enemy combatants.
Several Democrats have already announced their intention to introduce legislation to end the practice. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has said he would introduce such a measure as an amendment to the all-important annual defense policy bill — which would give it a decent shot at passing since Republicans are deeply invested in the defense bill.
After protests broke out in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, local law enforcement authorities took to the streets in armored carriers, further inflaming tensions. They showed little aptitude for restraint or de-escalation. The same thing is occurring in cities around the country right now.
Off-loading surplus military hardware to local police departments was never a good idea. The practice started back during the 1990s as violent crime peaked and local and federal authorities were feverishly devoted to winning the so-called war on drugs. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the program ramped up, doling out battlefield gear even to small towns no self-respecting terrorist ever heard of.
Law enforcement agents became enamored of images of themselves decked out like soldiers on special-ops missions. According to The New York Times, the Web site of a South Carolina sheriff’s department featured its SWAT team “dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun.”
Poor neighborhoods are subjected to the military-style hardware much more often than affluent ones. And the consequence of that sort of policing is often less safety, not more. When the police behave like an occupying force, the residents return the favor — treating them with suspicion and contempt. That hardly makes it more likely that police will get the information they need to solve crimes.
The administration of President Barack Obama understood that and curbed the Pentagon program after Ferguson. In the final years of the Obama administration, the Pentagon reported that local law enforcement agencies had returned 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets, the Times said. Pause for a moment just to consider that. Why would any police department — even New York City’s army of 36,000 officers — need bayonets and grenade launchers? Once you implant in the heads of police officers the notion that they need battlefield gear, their use of violence against unarmed citizens escalates as a natural consequence.
But guess what happened when Trump took office? He removed Obama’s restraints on the Pentagon program, once again allowing local law enforcement agents to go to battle against the citizens they are sworn to protect. No surprise there. In 2017, Trump gave a speech in which he urged police officers not to worry about injuring a suspect during an arrest.
Police violence against black people is a problem as old as the nation itself. It didn’t start with Trump’s presidency and won’t end when it’s over. Rather, the racist culture that is embedded among so many law enforcement agencies showed itself clearly when major police unions enthusiastically backed Trump’s election. When Trump is finally gone, the campaign to eradicate that culture can begin in earnest.