Blog of Rights

Towns Don't Need Tanks, But They Have Them

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU & Emma Andersson, Criminal Law Reform Project at 2:59pm

Keene, New Hampshire has a population of 23,409, except during the months of July and August when campers flock in for the summer. Keene's violent crime index? 134.4, compared to a national average of 213.6. Most common crime? Theft. Good thing the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave Keene money to buy a BearCat, an armored counter-attack vehicle. What is Keene using its BearCat for? Good question.

Here's what we do know: a Keene City Councilmember has admitted that the city lied to DHS about its need for terrorism-prevention tools. To explain why the police included the word "terrorism" on their application for federal funding for the Bear Cat purchase, a city councilmember said, "Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that's just something you put in the grant application to get the money.” He continued, “What red-blooded American cop isn't going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That's what it comes down to."

And then there's Richland County, South Carolina, population 389,116. Richland's violent crime rate is down 3.7%; its overall crime rate is down 3.8% compared to last year. Many of the crimes that take place there relate to drug use or gambling. Nonetheless, Richland's Sheriff's Department has an armored personnel carrier they dubbed "The Peacemaker." The carrier can shoot weapons that the U.S. military specifically refrains from using on people— this type of firepower is generally reserved for use against armored vehicles. Sheriff Leon Lott insists that the "Peacemaker" will save lives. Really? Is this type of firepower truly necessary for routine law enforcement?

Disturbingly, Keene and Richland do not seem to be anomalies among state and local police departments. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country have sweeping access to military equipment and to billions of dollars in federal grant money to purchase heavy weaponry designed for overseas combat missions, as well as access to anti-terrorism tactical training.

Here's another thing we do know: the war on drugs has been waged most aggressively on poor people and people of color. If, as anecdotes suggest, police are using these military weapons and tactics to make drug arrests, we're concerned about the effect of militarization on these communities.

We all need to know more about how and why our local police departments are arming themselves with weapons of war.

Do tools like BearCats – that were traditionally reserved for wartime enemies – actually increase the safety of our communities? Or are we unnecessarily risking massive damage to innocent people and bystanders that these combat tools can inflict? Do you want your town to have a tank?

On March 6th, ACLU affiliates in 23 states filed over 255 public records requests with law enforcement agencies and National Guard offices to determine the extent to which federal funding and support has fueled the militarization of state and local police departments.

Here are some of the questions we want answered: what technologies and training are local law enforcement agencies obtaining from the federal government to use in their everyday policing? What legal protections are in place before these tools and tactics are obtained and used? And what oversight mechanisms, if any, exist? It's time for some answers, because the militarization of law enforcement in America encourages unnecessarily aggressive policing that too often results in tragedy.

Stay tuned as this project develops.

Click here more information about the ACLU's project on the Militarization of Policing in America.

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