In May of 2015, then-President Obama announced the Pentagon would no longer be allowed to give certain types of military equipment to local police departments to use against ordinary people. The announcement came in response to uproar over the police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere as Americans increasingly realized the vehicles and weapons which so often contribute to police brutality are frequently presents from the federal government (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, with minimal proof required that these weapons are in any sense “needed”).
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Unfortunately, as Rare’s Casey Given documented at the time, Obama’s restrictions were a mostly symbolic reform: some of the banned items weren’t being given to police anyway, and plenty of military equipment was still fair game. Obama prohibited “the handover of some equipment, including weaponized aircraft, bayonets, grenade launchers and armored vehicles that run on tracks,” the Los Angeles Times reported, but added, “Grenades and bayonets, on Obama’s banned list, are not in widespread use by police, analysts say, and armored vehicles with tires are more common in police departments than tanks with tracks.”
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Now, President Trump has reversed what little positive change Obama did achieve, as USA Today explains:
The Trump administration Monday lifted a controversial ban on the transfer of some surplus military equipment to police departments whose battlefield-style response to rioting in a St. Louis suburb three years ago prompted a halt to the program.
The new plan takes effect immediately and fully rolls back an Obama administration executive order that blocked armored vehicles, large-caliber weapons, ammunition and other heavy equipment from being re-purposed from foreign battlefields to America’s streets.
Supporters of the reversal cast it as a “waste not, want not” initiative that saves taxpayers money by putting old military equipment to use rather than sending it to the dump. “Assets that would otherwise be scrapped can be re-purposed to help state, local and tribal law enforcement better protect public safety and reduce crime,” a wildly misleading White House statement said.
The truth is the issue at hand is not fiscal responsibility, but rather the nature and purpose of American policing. When we militarize police, we give them the equipment and foster the mindsets that make brutality more likely. We encourage cops to think of Americans as their enemy to be controlled rather than their neighbors to be served.
Contra the White House, bayonets and grenades and tanks will not and cannot “protect public safety and reduce crime,” because they are not tools of effective, peaceful, civilian policing. They are tools of war.
Having a bayonet does not encourage de-escalation. Having a grenade does not encourage levelheaded problem-solving. Having a tank does not encourage police to see the public as peers whose lives and rights are as valuable as their own.
It is unfair to both police and citizens to dress cops like warriors and then wonder why they act the part. “Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger,” one commentator wisely wrote amid the Ferguson controversies. “Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.”
Despite the White House framing of Monday’s announcement, it is difficult for me to believe Trump has made this change without realizing that more militarization brings more brutality. After all, this is the president who not so long ago advised police officers to be more brutal on the job, even when dealing with people who have not been found guilty of any crime.
Further militarizing police won’t increase public safety or reduce crime. In fact, to the extent that it encourages police misconduct, it will make us less safe and more at risk of crimes committed in uniform.