Let’s check our weaponry: 93,000 machine guns — check! — 533 planes and helicopters — check! 180,000 magazine cartridges — check! 44,000 night-vision goggles — check! 432 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles — check! OK, let’s roll!
Only, this is not the U.S. military getting ready to head into battle in a foreign land. It’s our local police departments patrolling our cities, towns and college campuses. Remember “Officer Friendly,” the beat cops who were known as “peace officers” and were counted on to uphold our domestic laws, detect and investigate crimes, and be a helpful, non-threatening presence in our communities? The friendlies have largely been transformed into militarized forces, literally armed with and garbed in war gear and indoctrinated in military psychology, rather than the ethic of community policing.
From 1776 forward, Americans have wisely opposed having soldiers do police work on our soil, but in recent years, Pentagon chiefs have teamed up with police chiefs to circumvent that prohibition. How? Simply by militarizing police departments.
Twenty years ago, Congress created the military transfer program, providing federal grants so chiefs of police and sheriffs could buy surplus firepower from the Pentagon. Through those grants, in a stunningly short time, our local police forces have become high-octane, macho-military units, possessing a large armory of Pentagon freebies ranging from 30-ton tanks to rifle silencers. For ordinary police work, they’ve gone from peacekeeping beats to way over-the-top SWAT team aggression that’s unleashed on the citizenry tens of thousands of times a year. For example, a gung-ho Florida SWAT team raided area barbershops in 2010 to stop the horror of “barbering without a license.” And masked police in Louisiana launched a military raid on a nightclub in order to perform a liquor-law inspection. These were barbers and bartenders, not al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Militarization is a dangerous and ultimately deadly perversion of the honorable purpose of policing — and it is out of control. The New York Times notes that 38 states have received silencers to use in surreptitious raids. A sheriff in a North Dakota rural county with only 11,000 people told a Times reporter that he saw no need for silencers. When it was pointed out that his department had received 40 of them from the Pentagon, he was clearly baffled, saying: “I don’t recall approving them.”
From Salinas, California, to Ohio State University, the Pentagon has been shipping massive amounts of surplus war equipment to our local gendarmes. This reflects a fundamental rewiring of the mindset now guiding neighborhood policing. Police chiefs today commonly send out squads brandishing heavy arms and garbed in riot gear for peaceful situations. Recruiting videos now feature high-adrenaline clips of SWAT-team officers dressed in black, hurling flash grenades into a home, and then storming the house, firing automatic weapons. Who wants anyone recruited by that video working their neighborhood?
As a city councilman in rural Wisconsin commented when told his police were getting a 9-foot-tall armored vehicle: “Somebody has to be the first to say, ‘Why are we doing this?’” The New York Times reports that the town’s police chief responded that, “There’s always a possibility of violence.” Really? Who threatens us with such mayhem that every burg needs a war-zone armory and a commando mentality?
Astonishingly, a sheriff’s spokesman in suburban Indianapolis offered this answer: Veterans. The sheriff’s department needed a mine-resistant armored vehicle, he explained, to defend itself against U.S. veterans returning from the Afghanistan war. War veterans, he said, “have the ability and knowledge to build (homemade bombs) and to defeat law enforcement techniques.”
That way of thinking is lame, loopy, insulting, shameful and just plain stupid. Maybe he just forgot to pack his brain when he left for work that day. But I’m afraid it’s a window into the altered mindset of police chiefs and trainers.