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Do Cops Really Need Tanks to Keep Us Safe?

Kara Dansky,
Former Senior Counsel,
ACLU Center for Justice
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September 23, 2014

This piece was originally published on The Crime Report.

The militarized law enforcement response to peaceful protests over the killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. last month, has prompted several federal officials to question the use of military weapons and tactics by local law enforcement, and the federal programs that fuel it.

They aren't the only ones who are skeptical.

In some cities and counties, officials and the public are resisting, and even reversing, the militarization of their police. Recently, for example, the City Council of Davis, California voted to return a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) ordered by the police chief from army surplus.

"When it comes to help from Washington, we—like most communities—have a long wish list," explained Mayor Dan Wolk. "But a tank, or MRAP, or whatever you choose to call it, is not on that list."

President Barack Obama has called for an administrative review of the Defense Department's 1033 program and other programs that authorize the Pentagon to give away military equipment to state and local police, as well as Justice and Homeland Security Department funding streams that enable police departments to purchase new military weapons and vehicles.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, earlier this month, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin wrote that the events in Ferguson raised a "new urgency" on questions on whether the use of military tactics and equipment by local police forces is appropriate. He specifically raised a concern that the Pentagon may be supplying military equipment to police departments that have a history of violations of federal laws, or are already the subject of allegations or investigations relating to the possession of such equipment.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also held a hearing this month to explore ways that Congress might enhance oversight and accountability of the Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security programs that provide military surplus equipment to law enforcement.

These are important and positive developments. But the issue has been attracting attention long before the events in Ferguson. In June, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) a report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing urging a re-examination at all levels of government of the use of military tactics and equipment by law enforcement. .

It is important to note that there is increasing bipartisan support for re-considering these policies at the local level in various parts of the country. Citizens and local authorities argue that the acquisition and use of military equipment by local law enforcement has had a damaging impact on poor communities and communities of color—particularly as a result of its deployment in the failed and wasteful War on Drugs.

Davis isn't the only California city to object to the militarization of its police forces. In San Jose, the decision to get rid of an MRAP vehicle came from the police itself.

"It is a useful tool, but we realize it could be viewed by the community as the militarization of SJPD," explained San Jose police spokeswoman Sgt. Heather Randol. "It could create a divide, and we want the community's trust."

In New Jersey Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino announced that he is delaying his request for two MRAPs as well, after his initial request received considerable opposition not only from Bergen County residents, but also from the Republican County Executive.

In North Carolina, the heads of the Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and Carrboro police departments, as well as the Orange County Sheriff's Office, have announced a series of public forums to answer community questions about their use of military weapons and technology, "responding to concerns from community members regarding ongoing national events around the concept of ‘militarization‘ of local law enforcement." Elected officials and other community leaders have said they plan to be in attendance.

In Utah, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and advocacy organizations, including the ACLU of Utah, and Libertas—a state-based libertarian group—succeeded in passing bills calling for stronger civilian oversight over police tactics during the 2014 legislative session and is poised to enact further reforms this session. The state's Law Enforcement Interim Legislative Committee has put the issue on its agenda for consideration later this month.

As federal officials consider possible avenues to reform, they will undoubtedly hear arguments from some representatives of local law enforcement agencies that the military equipment is needed to protect officers and enhance public safety. While officer safety is certainly a consideration, the ACLU study found that, in fact, the use of military weapons and tactics tends to escalate the risk of violence.

The nation watched that phenomenon play out dramatically in Ferguson.

Moreover, crime is down across the country, making clear what many people already know: we do not need grenade launchers and tanks to keep us safe.

As federal officials and legislators continue their examination into the militarization of policing, they should take note that the people have spoken: their constituents do not want their police to treat their neighborhoods like war zones.

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