Militarization of Police

D.C. Has Done Nothing About Its Role in Militarizing Police

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Remember how, in the wake of some of the worst responses by the police in Ferguson to even peaceful protesters (propping themselves up on military vehicles and training sniper rifles at them) there was supposed to be some sort of discussion or debate about scaling back the federal government's role in providing military equipment to law enforcement agencies across the country? Unsurprisingly, that doesn't seem to be happening. For those who don't remember what was said back in August, here's Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) talking about it; here's Ron Paul talking about it; here's parody site Clickhole mocking it; here's citizens of Ferguson talking about it; and here's President Barack Obama notably not talking about it.  

Granted it's only been a couple of months and Congress moves slowly, but BuzzFeed checked in to see that there doesn't seem to be any movement to scale back the programs that provide military-grade equipment to law enforcement agencies. They spoke with former Reason editor and police militarization expert Radley Balko:

Lawmakers vowed changes to the Pentagon programs that deliver military-grade equipment to local police after images of cops climbing out of armored vehicles with military-grade weapons filtered out of Ferguson, Missouri, in August.

But months later, the chaotic 1033 program — which sends surplus military gear built for combat to local police forces with little oversight — hasn't changed at all.

The 113th Congress will end without substantive changes to the program. The White House hasn't announced the results of its policy review. The flow of billions in technology designed for the battlefield to local police forces will go on unabated.

"The fear is that this is some kind of moment that passed. It's just another example of temporary interest in a crisis and inevitably things go back to normal," said Radley Balko, a prominent expert on police militarization and author of the most cited book on the topic. "Looking at the history on this issue tends to make one cynical."

After Ferguson, some communities began to demand that their local governments divest themselves of their biggest items, those giant mine resistant and ambush proof (MRAP) vehicles.  In September, the Los Angeles Times noted that the Los Angeles Unified School District had snagged all sorts of military gear, including machine guns, grenade launchers and an MRAP truck. At the time the department said they'd give up the grenade launchers but insisted on keeping the guns and truck.

Barstow's amateur Route 66 photography industry must be protected!
Credit: Jasperdo / photo on flickr

Now it turns out they're giving up the MRAP vehicle as well. But it didn't go back to the military. Instead it has ended up in my former hometown of Barstow, population 23,000, in the middle of the California Mojave Desert. From the Los Angeles Daily News:

School police wanted the MRAP to rescue people in the event of a wide-scale attack that would prevent other law enforcement agencies from responding to campuses, Zipperman said.

With a value of $733,000, the vehicle seemed a cost-effective alternative to armor-plated vehicles built for civilian use, which cost $300,000, Zipperman has said. However, the cost of maintenance and certifying a driver played a role in Zipperman's decision to send the MRAP back to state officials who administer the federal program, he said.

State officials transferred the MRAP to the Barstow Police Department last month, said Alex Pal, an attorney in the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Barstow, a relatively poor town that survives on jobs serving two nearby military bases and whose online presence is almost entirely of pretty photos of shabby old Route 66 historical signs, has a crime rate above average, but not notably or scarily so. It reported no murders at all for 2012 and only 45 robberies. Opportunistic property crimes are where it gets its higher numbers from. Yes it has druggies out there in the desert, but in the event there's a violent crime involving them, they often end up targeting each other (as the former editor of the newspaper out there, I have had many arguments with citizens who were certain the place was a hotbed for crime, despite all evidence to the contrary). There were some occasional meth lab busts, but the place was no Breaking Bad.

Furthermore, because of the city's location halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Barstow ends up being a location for body dumps and bank robberies by criminals from elsewhere in the state who bust in, grab cash, and are gone before police even arrive. Barstow is a place for CSI-style investigations, not SWAT raids. That MRAP is not going to get much use other than getting dragged out for the annual Halloween parade, but it will be another burden to the city's budget.

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