By Lise Millay Stevens
We’re all grateful that if we feel threatened, or witness a crime, or hear a strange noise in night we can simply pick up a phone and call 911. And when we do so, we expect a cruiser or two of seasoned and courteous professionals with nightsticks and guns and handcuffs to show up and take care of business. What we don’t expect is armored personnel carriers of individuals armed with submachine guns, flashbang grenades and assault rifles showing up and storming the house next door or a fleet of tanks rolling into an unruly protest. Yet that is exactly what is happening all over the United States.
In 1997, the U.S. Department of Defense launched the 1033 program, an initiative that allowed the agency to provide lists of, and donate, used military equipment to local police forces throughout the country. The program, according to a recent article in the New Yorker, went relatively unnoticed until 9/11, when law enforcement agencies with the jitters over the terrorist attacks began taking notice of the DoD’s generous offer. The result? Police forces are now armed with M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers and MRAPs – mine-resistant, ambush-protected and roadside bomb-resistant vehicles weighing 20 tons that go for a cool $400,000 a pop.
According to the Marshall Project’s ‘Department of Defense Gift Guide, as of 2014, the DoD has distributed 624 MRAPs, 205 grenade launchers, 84 machetes and 2,824 pairs of night vision goggles to police departments across the country, among other goodies. The problems is this—military equipment is designed for fighting wars. It is specifically designed to enable the U.S. Army and Navy and Airforce and associated forces to combat foreign armies of similarly armed warriors, or crush enclaves of heavily-armed terrorists in Afghanistan, or to simply deter meddling foreign leaders when we draw a ‘line in the sand’ regarding Syria.
Military weaponry is specifically manufactured for war, for large-scale battles and small bands of heavily-armed militants. What it is specifically not meant for is controlling or confronting civilians who would otherwise harm their law-abiding counterparts. So, what happens when police get their hands on these high-powered toys?
Providing police with military grade equipment has changed the face and the behavior of local police; tactics have escalated to match military-style policing of the U.S. civilian population. According to a report from the ACLU titled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police, providing warrior-grade armaments to police produces a change in how the cops view and treat civilians. “Militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a “warrior” mentality,” the agency report explains, “and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies”