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Column: The militarization of U.S. police forces

Attendees look at the Lenco MRAP Bear SWAT Team vehicle at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona March 12, 2013. REUTERS/J
Attendees look at the Lenco MRAP Bear SWAT Team vehicle at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona March 12, 2013. REUTERS/J

By Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers

This month, more Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) have found their way from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Main Streets of America. These are just the latest acquisitions in a growing practice by Pentagon that's militarizing America's municipal police forces.

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. Increasingly, they are looking 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.

Due to the large amount of missing weapons, the Pentagon has now temporarily suspended new weapons shipments to domestic law enforcement agencies. This is a good step. But it is not enough — especially since the ban is expected to be lifted soon.

Meanwhile, city agencies are still free to transfer weapons to other cities and are still free to receive armored personnel carriers and aircraft from the Pentagon. As the new MRAPs patrolling Iowa and Florida now demonstrate, current limitations do nothing to discourage the militarization of local police.

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.

Receiving free equipment is a privilege for law enforcement — a privilege that so far has not come with any responsibility. It is unacceptable for American 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's 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 encourage Congress to scale the program back promptly.

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.

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