Armored vehicles lumber down the dusty road of a small town; heavily armed men sporting body armor and tactical gear ride along in the back. This is the reality of post-9/11 America.
Many military operations overseas are coming to a close, but the War on Terror is still happening. An alarming amount of ordinance from foreign wars is being funneled back into the United States and being given directly to law enforcement agencies.
This, coupled with an upswing in the predominance of paramilitary tactics utilized by local police, has permanently transformed policing in the U.S. and could alter American society as a whole.
The use of assault weapons and military-style tactics by the police are very troubling for a number of reasons. Statistics released from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that the vast majority of weapons used in violent crimes are handguns or knives, which makes the use of assault rifles by police seem like overkill.
The use of “no-knock warrants,” which allow police officers to enter a home without immediate or prior notification to the homeowners, is a tool increasingly utilized by police officers. No-knock warrants are used when it is believed that evidence in a home may be destroyed during the time it takes police to identify themselves. Warrants of this nature have been decried as violating the Fourth Amendment. On top of constitutional challenges, the warrants are controversial for other reasons. For example, burglars have broken into homes by claiming to be police with no-knock warrants. Armed homeowners who believe they are being invaded have exchanged gunfire with officers, leading to deaths on both sides. The use of no-knock warrants has grown from about 3,000 raids a year in the 1980s to about 70,000 raids a year.
But what was the catalyst behind this trend in American policing? The proliferation of heavily armed police is directly correlated to America’s “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror.” We might like to think of increased militarization as a result of our post-9/11 mentality, but it is really a symptom of policies from more than three decades ago.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which allowed and encouraged the military to cooperate with local, state and federal law enforcement and render assistance via research, equipment and other assets to assist with the then-nascent “War on Drugs” initiative.
This act of government authorized the military to train civilian police officers to use the new high-tech weaponry, instructed the military to share drug-war-related information with police officers and authorized the military to take an active role in preventing drugs from entering the country.
Thus the precedent was set, inviting future legislators to pass laws in a similar vein and thus decrease the distinction between the military and police, all in the name of keeping drugs off the streets. Modern theories of policing define the police as civil-servants working through local government for the prevention of crimes and apprehension of criminals. Police are supposed to utilize a proportional amount of force as required by the situation whereas soldiers on a foreign battlefield may utilize any amount of force necessary to ensure the completion of the mission. But with the large amounts of military grade equipment and training made available to the police, the traditional mind set of police officers is changing to justify the use of these assets.
More recent legislature passed after the events of September 11, 2001 has transformed the issue from one of drug suppression to one of fighting the menace of terrorism. Legislature passed as early as the 1990s has resulted in thousands of pieces of military hardware, ranging from weapons to vehicles, being passed into the hands of the police for use on U.S. citizens.
This increasingly militarized police force could adversely affect police-civilian relationships as the general populace feels more and more like a people under occupation.
Recently, with the winding down of military operations abroad, the Department of Defense, along with the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department, have made it easier than ever for local police departments to obtain military vehicles. Heavily armed and armored mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) have recently found their way into the hands of civilian police. 175 of these hulking behemoths of war had been doled out to various police departments across the U.S. when they first became available in the summer of 2013, and the number of requests for MRAPs has quadrupled in the past year.
Many civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have condemned the use of military vehicles in American municipalities, stating that the use of military and SWAT style tactics for simple arrests or warrant servings is far from necessary.
The purchasing of military grade equipment, ranging from body armor to the aforementioned MRAPs is made simple for even the smallest and most low key of police departments through a series of grants from the Department of Homeland Security. These grants are issued to “enhance the ability of regional authorities to prepare, prevent and respond to terrorist attacks and other disasters,” per the department’s own website.
Not only are these weapons made available to local police departments, but with these grants allow greater access to these weapons of war, a fact that has alarmed many Americans who hold strong convictions about the necessity of a civilian police force as opposed to a military or national police force.
In fact, an Associated Press investigation of the Defense Department’s military surplus program shows that a large percentage of the $4.2 billion worth of equipment that has been distributed over the past 25 years has gone directly to police and sheriff departments in rural areas with very few officers and low crime rates.
This overt militarization also comes at a time when reports on police brutality are occurring with more frequency than in decades past, contributing to an ongoing image problem of police in the U.S.
Every few weeks, stories about police brutality, accidental fatal shootings or other high profile run-ins with the police permeate media outlets and online blogs. Images of police officers raiding the Occupy encampments across the country with brutal efficiency, the beating to death of mentally ill homeless man Kelly Thomas by California police, the shooting of 18 year old Keith Vidal; these incidents, coupled with an increased emphasis on paramilitary training and mindset for police, could lead to a very serious breakdown in respect for law enforcement.
It is an unfortunate reality of our time that we live in an era of uncertainty. With terrorist attacks seemingly able to manifest out of nowhere, we rely on internal security forces more than ever for the protection of citizens. Training and arming police with the best equipment seems like a proactive step to helping them in their anti-terrorism responsibilities.
The problem arises when police begin utilizing these tools in their day-to-day operations; for example, serving a warrant for a non-violent drug offender does not merit the use of full body armor and SWAT-style raids. This disproportionate use of force on a nation’s citizens fosters resentment and suspicion toward law enforcement officials.
Ultimately, police militarization does more harm than good. Police come to be viewed as oppressors and citizens are viewed as potential threats. The result is that we as a nation are more endangered by our own police forces than by terrorists, and this reality causes distrusts of police on a fundamental level.
When you are more likely to end up dead at the hands of those sworn to protect you than those sworn to destroy you, who is the bigger threat?
– By Andrew Morsilli, a College senior from East Greenwich, Rhode Island
The Emory Wheel was founded in 1919 and is currently the only independent, student-run newspaper of Emory University. The Wheel publishes weekly on Wednesdays during the academic year, except during University holidays and scheduled publication intermissions.
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