President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this week that they will be suspending a handful of restrictions put in place by the Obama administration on transfers of equipment from the military to local police. While this decision is a setback for efforts to improve police community relations, its effects are primarily symbolic.
The federal 1033 Program allows local police departments to request excess equipment from the Defense Department. Everything from microwaves to helicopters is included on the extensive shopping lists distributed to police. Since its creation in 1997, the program has distributed over $5 billion worth of hardware to over 8,000 police departments.
Following the militarized policing of protests in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, police accountability activists and civil liberties advocates on the right and left raised serious concerns about the appropriateness of much of this hardware for civilian police forces. In addition to the bad optics, critics pointed out that this program, combined with the Department of Homeland Security’s “terrorism grants” worth another $35 billion, have contributed to a militarization of domestic policing and the rise of a warrior mentality.
Over the last generation there has been an explosion in the prevalence and mission of SWAT teams and other paramilitary police units. Radley Balko, in his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, shows how these units generally lack appropriate enforcement activities, so have creeped into new areas such as serving low-level drug warrants and intimidating protesters.
This kind of policing and the extensive training that goes with it tends to treat every police encounter as potentially deadly and instills an “us versus them” ethos within police ranks. That, combined with a robust “war on drugs,” “war on crime,” and “war on terror” has created a growing gulf between citizens and the police that is especially true in communities of color.
The Obama administration recognized how this warrior mindset is contributing to poor police community relations and argued that it should be replaced with a guardian mindset that more closely mirrors a “to serve and protect” approach that many feel has been abandoned in recent years.
In response, the Obama administration placed some restrictions on the hardware that can be transferred. Tracked vehicles, bayonets, and grenade launchers would no longer be allowed. Mine-resistant vehicles, sniper rifles, and military transport planes, however, remained available with few questions asked. In fact the Government Accounting Office, as part of an audit, recently obtained $1.2 million worth of military grade equipment from the Defense Department under assumed names and made up police departments.
The Obama-era reforms were so thin, in fact, that they have done little to turn back the tide of police militarization. Departments continue to obtain billions of dollars of military equipment to be used primarily for paramilitary police units. Some departments have even voluntarily sworn off the newly reauthorized equipment. The Los Angeles Police Department announced this week that it has no interest in obtaining camouflaged uniforms or .50 caliber ammunition that was prohibited by the Obama reforms, since they have no legitimate law enforcement purpose and undermine public trust in the police.
So why then are Trump and Sessions championing these changes as a boon to public safety? Because it is part of the political theater of punishment and control. Sessions’s ramping up of the war on drugs, and Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio are not about enhancing public safety; they are appeals to a politics of anger and resentment that is tied to a belief that the only way to solve public safety problems is through “getting tough.” Trump and Sessions are encouraging their supporters, including many police officers, to embrace a politics of branding immigrants, people of color, and people who commit crime as beyond the pale and deserving of the harshest of sanctions. It is this mindset that is the real threat to public safety.
Former police officer and now law professor Seth Stoughton tweeted Monday that this change “isn't about getting [officers] tools they didn't have & couldn't get." He continued, "Instead, it's [about] promoting a toxic approach to policing, one that reduces trust & effectiveness and endangers officers & civilians alike.”
It’s time to take a much bigger step to end police militarization than the changes implemented by the Obama administration. The 1033 and Terrorism Grants programs should be abandoned or completely rethought. Given the catastrophe in Houston this week, it’s clear that what local officials really need from the federal government to enhance public safety are high-water vehicles and swift water rescue boats, not tanks and bayonets.
Alex S. Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, and author of The End of Policing.