Obama moves to curb ‘militarization’ of police: A shift in law enforcement's role?

On Monday, President Obama is expected to reduce law enforcement access to US military equipment. Does this policy reflect a broader shift about the duties of local police?

Jason Wachter/The St. Cloud Times/AP/File
In this April 1, 2014 photo St. Cloud Police use a military grade vehicle during a standoff in St. Cloud, Minn. A debate about the militarization of Minnesota police forces has been renewed in light of the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Critics have questioned the need for a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in a city the size of St. Cloud, but authorities think it has already proven its worth.

The federal government will stop providing some types of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies and restrict the availability of others.

The new measures, announced by the Obama administration Monday, are a response to criticism of police actions in Ferguson, Mo. last year, when local officers wearing camouflage fatigues and driving armored vehicles confronted protestors after the death of teenager Michael Brown. The new policies may be seen as part of a broader re-balancing of the roles played by law enforcement agencies in the US – encouraging police to embrace the role of guardian over the warrior in their communities.

For decades police were called upon to be the first line of defense against drug and gang violence and more recently domestic terrorist attacks, whether from a lone actor or a larger network. Arming police for such a role seemed logical. At the same time, local officers were tasked to protect and serve their communities, even as crime rates across the country steadily decline.

To some, Ferguson represented a wake up call, underscoring what some saw as the "militarization" of law enforcement and the need to return to a mindset that was less confrontational.  As The Christian Science Monitor’s Anne Mulrine reported last summer:

The Department of Defense’s 1033 program to provide surplus military equipment to police departments across the country was under fire for contributing to the “militarization” of local police departments which, critics said, had no business possessing grenade launchers, powerful military-grade rifles, and armored vehicles that appeared to be kitted out for a war zone against small-town Americans.

The 1033 program, established in 1997, is a product of the the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was Congress’ response to what was then “a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis,” Newsweek reported. The NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to give excess military supplies, including small arms and ammunitions, to federal and state agencies for use in anti-drug activities.

“The idea was that if the US wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors,” according to Newsweek.

Support for the 1033 program increased after the 1999 shootings in Colorado’s Columbine High School, which left 13 dead, and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

While police in many US communities were preparing for the rare cases of a school shooting or terrorist attack, crime rates were declining significantly nationwide.

Incidents of violent crime have fallen from nearly 700 per 100,000 in 1995 to less than 400 per 100,000 in 2012, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show. In the same time period, murder and negligent manslaughter fell from eight incidents per 100,000 to just under five.

“We can safely say crime is down,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston told the Monitor in 2012. “We are indeed a safer nation than 20 years ago.”

Yet less crime has not meant less military equipment. As of last year, more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country had enrolled in the program, which has doled out more than $5.4 billion worth of property since its inception, according to the US Defense Logistics Agency.

For some, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“We just want to be prepared for the kind of things that have happened elsewhere in the country, Sandy Hook and earlier before that, Columbine,” Ricardo Perez, police chief at the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, told The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Perez’s district owns two Humvees and a cargo truck, and operates a SWAT team courtesy of the 1033 program. None had yet been used in response to a school shooting or any other major incident, the Journal noted at the time.

The events in Ferguson, however, appear to have served as a tipping point in tensions between the public and law enforcement. At a congressional hearing last year about the Ferguson police department’s response to protests, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle urged reform.

“We were horrified by seeing an unarmed man with his hands over his head being confronted by an armored personnel carrier,” Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said at the hearing. “Confronting protesters with armored personnel carriers is thoroughly un-American.”

Obama’s new measures, announced in Camden, N.J. Monday, are the product of a presidential task force formed in January to find legislative fixes to the issue.

Among the equipment to be banned are “tanks and other tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition measuring .50-caliber and larger, grenade launchers and bayonets,” NBC News reported. Local agencies will also have to adopt community policing programs that require regular interaction between officers and the public.

The government has set aside more than $160 million in grants to encourage local police departments to adopt the new policies, according to The New York Times.

While the new measures are likely to face resistance in local agencies, especially in conservative communities, administration officials have expressed the hope that the new policies will, in the long run, foster greater trust and less fear.

“Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy,” reads the presidential task force’s preliminary report, released in March. “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.”

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