Police

Civilian Cops Don't Need Military Weapons

Police are supposed to be part of a community, not an occupying military force armed to the teeth.

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I recently was driving behind a pickup truck that sported a bumper sticker with a U.S. Marine Corps logo and these words: "When it absolutely positively has to be destroyed overnight." That line got me thinking about policing—and the vastly different roles between the U.S. military and the nation's civilian police forces.

The goal of the military obviously is to subdue a nation's enemies. The U.S. military has engaged in many misbegotten exercises that try build nations rather than destroy them, but they rarely go as planned. That's because military forces are not really trained to create court systems and hold elections. If they were, that bumper sticker wouldn't even be mildly funny.

Since the start of the drug war in the 1980s and following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our nation has increasingly blurred the distinction between the military and domestic police departments. Local police forces train their recruits as if they are patrolling the streets of Baghdad, and then equip them with surplus equipment from the latest wars.

This trend is dangerous and to some degree explains the frustrations that sparked national police protests. A Department of Justice report following a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, found that officers "demand compliance even when they lack legal authority" and "interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence."

In short, Americans don't like to be treated as if they are living under occupation. Not all police officers or departments operate that way, but it's common enough—and that authoritarian approach is at odds with the policing we should expect in a democratic society.

"The streets of America are not some far-off battlefield, and our police are not an occupying force," the Project on Government Oversight explains. "The military's function is to fight foreign enemies, which requires specialized weapons, gear, and tactics. Domestic police, however, are meant to protect individuals and uphold the rights that every American is afforded under the Constitution."

That seems obvious, and yet the Pentagon's 1033 program has sent $1.5 billion in decommissioned military hardware—firearms, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and aircraft—to local departments. (I once interviewed the head of a law-enforcement agency who refused such equipment because whenever departments received such toys, he said his officers would be too eager to use them.)

The Defense Logistics Agency seems proud of the program, as its website features stories of Texas police who deployed an MRAP during a SWAT raid and a Michigan department that used a personnel carrier to deal with dam breaks. No one is upset at the use of equipment during natural disasters, but some departments use military vehicles to serve simple warrants.

Last month, Congress had a chance to rein in this program. But the House of Representatives rejected, on a 198-231 vote, an amendment to a national defense authorization bill that would have limited these 1033 equipment transfers. It was a timely proposal given that the pullback in Afghanistan means that there's going to be more surplus equipment. Inexplicably, Joe Biden has opposed even modest restrictions on the 1033 program, which echoes the position of the former Trump administration.

The amendment was reasonable. It would have forbidden the transfer of "controlled firearms, ammunition, bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades (including stun and flash-bang) and explosives" as well as MRAPs, armored and weaponized drones and aircraft that "have no established commercial flight application." I'm still not sure why local police and sheriffs' departments need grenade launchers and weaponized drones, but call me old-fashioned.

"Our neighborhoods need to be protected, but Americans and our founding fathers opposed blurring the line between police and the military," said sponsor Rep. Hank Johnson (D–Ga.). Conservative Rep. Tom McClintock (R–Calif.) co-sponsored the amendment. However, few other Republicans recognized the dangers of an overly militarized police force—or perhaps they are too frightened of police unions to do the right thing.

Police agencies might believe they need military equipment because of potential terrorist attacks or efforts by violent drug gangs, but those are rare occurrences. The equipment typically is used in the course of everyday police work. Those are just excuses departments use to acquisition this "cool" stuff. They are free to the departments, but they often impose maintenance burdens. I can only imagine the cost of an MRAP engine rebuild.

Recent peer-reviewed studies show that the use of such equipment doesn't reduce crime or protect officers. Instead, such military cosplay teaches officers to view the citizenry as subjects who must blindly submit to their authority, inflates the dangers officers face, and encourages cops to take unnecessarily aggressive actions, especially during public protests.

It heightens antagonism between the police and the communities they protect and serve. That's not surprising given that police are meant to build bridges within their communities—not destroy them.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.

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  1. Abusive police departments, the Taliban, EPA. The federal government should not be transferring weapons to these organizations.

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  2. Civilian Cops Don’t Need Military Weapons

    They do if they want to defeat the Insurrectionists and Disinformation Conspiracy Theorists that pose A Danger To Our Democracy. Have you been asleep for the past year?

    1. Destroying the village in order to save it.

    2. Interesting…I was thinking they needed the equipment as well, but only because of inner city democrats. 🙂

    3. It’s a question of which equipment and how it it used. MRAPs are essentially defensive – protecting the people inside from attacks. What is so bad about that?

      Of course, you don’t send an MRAP out to issue parking tickets, but when the police are endangered, they should be protected. So far, MRAPs should fill the bill for protecting police when dealing with armed criminals in certain circumstances — the police don’t need tanks (yet, anyway).

  3. Can a grenade launcher fire tear gas?

    Bayonet… Why would a police force ever have that?

    MRAP…. What is the point? Simple armored carrier? Position police while under threat of gunfire? I can think of a handful of incidents justifying outside of 2020… Where there were hundreds.

    Drones? Makes sense. Cheaper than police helicopter and performs the same function.

    The bottom line….

    We paid for this crap already. If the choice is scrap billions worth of equipment or find a use for it, the incentive to find a use is obvious.

    But the militarization of mentality is real. We had a “Unity in the Community” festival several years in a row… Designed to bring the police and community together. Particularly the minority community. The police all showed up in heavy tactical gear – army green with black tactical vests, body armor, boots… They looked for all the world like army forces in Iraq. They held several demonstrations… A SWAT raid with an APC. A simulated breach with an armored bobcat of all things… It had a big armored shield on the front where the loader bucket would go, capable of carrying 5 people into a second floor breach.

    It was the most tone-deaf thing I have ever seen.

    And it perfectly demonstrates the non-obvious psychological dangers.

    1. Agree 100%

      The incentive is not just turned to militarizing police domestically. Two different quotes by a foreign policy realist (not an idealist type):

      What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

      If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are an indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.

      The very act of overfunding our military gives us a power that we will misuse and an arrogance that will rationalize whatever we do.

    2. If the choice is scrap billions worth of equipment or find a use for it

      Why can’t we sell it to civilians?

      1. Because there are other choices. I’m a retired Army officer. One of the choices from Destroyers to Bayonets is FMS- Foreign Military Sales. DOD has been doing it since 1945. Slightly obsolete or surplus equipment goes to our allies.

    3. Can a grenade launcher fire tear gas?

      Yes (the M651 CS gas grenade), along with other less-lethal riot control rounds (the M1029 disperses 48 rubber balls, the M1009 is a solid foam “sponge grenade”).

      On the “we paid for this crap already” standard, ammunition is obviously legitimate for police to have (and the 9mm used by most US police forces is a standard military/NATO round for pistols and submachine guns), and flash-bangs are a reasonable item for police to have.

      “Controlled firearms” as a class are marginal, but there are some legitimate police uses for rifles, and assault rifles have selective fire.

      In general, it looks to me like the amendment was deliberately made overly-broad specifically so that it would be assured of failing, while allowing a bunch of congressmen to be able to claim they voted against police militarization.

      1. “…ammunition is obviously legitimate for police to have (and the 9mm used by most US police forces is a standard military/NATO round for pistols and submachine guns)…”

        Albeit .Mil is probably using ball ammunition, and the cops want JHP. Still fine for training though, and God knows the cops could use more marksmanship training.

        I’d rather they use rifles more than they do, frankly. Far more accurate and damaging than handguns. Two aimed shots stopping the deadly threat RFN, beats hell out of mag-dump in general direction, and maybe the bad guy stops what he’s doing.

        MRAPs, from what I have been told and read, are maintenance intensive rollover magnets. That said, the police can have a (IMHO) legit need for bullet-resistant vehicles for barricade situations, casualty removal, etc…

        I go back to a point of the old poster John policing: it should be absolutely unmistakable that a cop making an arrest is a cop. Big letters, big shiny shield, and other emblems of the authority entrusted with them by the citizenry. Do that (and also act within the bounds of a Constitutionally-limited government), and I think we’re good. I don’t mind the cops wearing armor, so long as I can tell they’re cops.

        1. IMO, if they need an MRAP or the like, that’s a good time for them to call the governor for National Guard assistance. If only because that’ll keep them from using it on routine matters.

          In any case, there’s plenty of places where one can reasonably disagree on how much militarization is too much. But I can’t come up with any version where just providing ammunition is too much militarization.

    4. “Drones? Makes sense. Cheaper than police helicopter and performs the same function.”

      Depends on what kind of drones you are talking about.

      Quad copters for areal surveillance, maybe. Preditor/Reaper type drones? Most definitely not?

      1. Hellfire missile would definitely be useful for rowdy school board meetings….

    5. Give all the equipment to the National Guard.

    6. It seems like you are trying to walk a common sense line but I have to say much of this article is due to uninformed nonsense. First anything that is transferred to the police that is defensive or offers than a “less than lethal” alternative to a gun should be off the table. Yes that includes MRAPS. If we bought them and they serve a purpose than why not use them? Now at issue is that SWAT teams are overused (think Breonna Taylor)…and thats a fair discussion, but not offering officers in high risk roles access to better weapons and defensive technology (body armor, MRAPs, tactical shields) is just dumb.

    7. “If the choice is scrap billions worth of equipment or find a use for it”

      The question is why does it need to be scrapped? Is the military sending this equipment to the police just to justify buying more equipment. Is the purpose of the transfer equipment to the police to better equip the police or to keeping the money flowing to the Defense contractor?

    8. Well said and i totally agree. To back up a little. The job of the military is to win wars by “killing people and breaking things.” In many places the police have developed an Us vs Them mentality. THEM is ANYONE who isn’t police! I have few stories that prove the point. As an Army Officer and Libertarian I don’t take crap from some rookie just out of the Academy when they try to intimidate me. The look on their faces is priceless.
      My uncles years ago were Chicago peace officers and part of the community. They were liked and respected. If todays Boys in Blue ever want to regain respect they should consider the concept instead of looking for ANY reason to intimidate (or try) the average citizen. NO they don’t need military equipment to do battle with Granny watering her lawn on the ‘wrong’ day or a swat team delivering a warrant for parking tickets. Many have become ridiculous! Look at the FBI!

  4. Even equipping police with semi-automatic AR-15s is questionable, since according to the Left the AR-15 is a mass killing machine only suitable for a battlefield.

    1. “according to the Left the AR-15 is a mass killing machine only suitable for a battlefield”

      It’s not only “the Left” saying that. Longtime libertarian activist Michael Hihn has frequently argued that banning assault weapons is a major libertarian goal.

      #UnbanMichaelHihn

      1. Mocking the dead is not parody. But it does reveal a lot about the person behind the parody.

        #NowMuted

        1. I feel your pain, loser.

          #NecromanceDaddyHihn

        2. I think its good hes banned though because all he would do is necroposting.

        3. Right, no mocking Hitler, Stalin or Mao or you’ll be mad.

      2. #UnbanMichaelHihn

        #ReanimateMichaelHihn

      3. Big surprise there are stupid people in every political party, occupation and walk of life. I just try and tune them out.

        Here’s a good one as an example:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSeiuEeQzK0

      4. I don’t give a crap what Michael Hihn says or thinks. He doesn’t speak for me. You?

  5. “Civilian Cops Don’t Need Military Weapons”

    They do if the politicians elected by the voters want them to fight in wars; the war on terrorism, the war on drugs, the war on homelessness, the war on poverty.
    “we” elected them, “we” must make them change.

    1. You left out the war on un-American attitude.

  6. “But the House of Representatives rejected, on a 198-231 vote, an amendment to a national defense authorization bill that would have limited these 1033 equipment transfers.”

    Wait a second. Don’t Democrats have a majority in the House? Why would the vote for basically funding the police?

    1. Because it’s the Republicans that wanted to defund the police and it always has been. Make sure you remember that so you don’t accidentally spread Disinformation.

      1. Only the FBI and only because they are no longer in the law ENFORCEMENT business.

      2. You have to be kidding us right. That was a joke that I just missed? Had to be a joke…

    2. I don’t think the Left really wants to abolish the police; rather, they want it under federal rather than local control.

      1. I don’t think the Left really wants to abolish the police

        They want votes, and saying “defund the police” was a way for them to get votes from key constituents.

      2. They want to be the police, or at least to have someone under their political control serving as police.
        Maybe if the angry and mentally ill Antifa folks had the full authority of the government to direct their rage at the normies, that would be the leftist ideal.

  7. “The streets of America are not some far-off battlefield, and our police are not an occupying force,” the Project on Government Oversight explains.

    “America’s streets are a *close-up* battlefield, and most police live well outside the areas they patrol.”

  8. Police need the proper weapons to defeat the enemy and the fact that these weapons are being deployed against the public tells you who they regard as the enemy.

    1. Of course, the weapons are not “being deployed against the public,” though they ARE being deployed against a specific subset of the public — i.e., the criminals. Equating criminals with “the public” seems a bit disingenuous, no? As has been repeatedly reported, it turns out most “underserved communities” want MORE police presence.

      Of course, using an MRAP to issue a parking citation would be overkill, and firing weapons at innocents, whether police weapons or military surplus weapons, is a crime.

      1. The weapons are for use against the enemy these days, NOW-Moms defending their children. M-16s, machine guns, MRAPS, those moms are a dangerous bunch! Who cares about illegal? OK to murder an unarmed protester girl at the Capitol, right? Whats a few more bodies to a Democrat?

  9. They do unless you want to pay for the military to handle every situation where the criminals thought they should be well armed.

    The police don’t want cruise missiles do they?

    1. The police don’t want cruise missiles do they?

      Not *today*.

      1. Right. Not today.

        Do you want to accuse them of something they haven’t done yet?

        1. Do you wanna accuse jews of something they havent done in the past? Or the present?

      2. Not ever….get over yourself. Don’t become a police officer, just go for a Saturday night ride along in an inner city police department. YOU might want them to have cruise missiles after just one night.

  10. Whether it’s police or scientists or just homeowners, just about ever one will have justifications for why they need the latest cool stuff.

  11. “In short, Americans don’t like to be treated as if they are living under occupation.”

    No, but they sure do love some military-style oppression of their social enemies.

    1. By “social enemies” you mean “criminals,” right?

  12. our local sheriff department got an MRAP. part of the agreement to keep it is that it has to be used. Lucky for us they’ve only used it as display at the local fair and car shows instead of running over a bunch of pot growers. one reason is its to big and heavy for some of the local bridges and roads but California is taking care of that.
    they did use the excuse that it would be used if there was a school shooter and i’d like to ask how are they going to drive that thing down the school hallways they are too narrow. its fucking stupid and all about keeping up with the other sherif departments

    1. A certain sheriff’s department got one of those fun toys.
      The SWAT team had ball driving it all around off road (training they called it), then a tire went flat. Not a jack in the county could lift that sucker. They finally found a relative of one of the deputies who had worked for the railroad to come to the rescue. Turns out when he retired, a locomotive jack followed him home, and that could lift the armored car to change the tire.
      Oh, by the way, the operating costs were 60% of the entire SWAT budget for prior years.

      1. I somewhat call shenanigans on this story. Unless the tire unkounted it would drive just fine. The tires are run flat on hard surfaces as well as off road.

  13. I saw one of these rolling around my sleepy California town (with the 10th lowest crime rate in the nation). I guess it’s working?

  14. Police should only have access to the same gear and weapons that the rest of the civilian population (because police are civilians) has.

    If the police don’t need military weapons it is only because the rest of us are forbidden from having them.

    Let’s correct that injustice.

    1. I don’t disagree with you…unfortunately your argument falls flat as civilians CAN own MRAPs….assuming you can afford to buy one. Its 22-tons of AWD drive fun. I have had the pleasure of riding in one owned by the FBI. It feels like riding in a street legal Caterpillar.

    2. Sure, the police and criminals should be entitled to have the same equipment — assuming you are of the opinion that the police and criminals have the same social standing and should suffer from the same likelihood of being killed by the other side.

  15. Too begin with, armored vehicles are not usually considered to be weapons. It is honest to keep that distinction. If you look at the picture that accompanies this article you will notice that there are no weapons shown.
    With that out of the way I’d like to focus on the author’s core view of the blurring between police and military since 9/11. I have sympathy for his view but I think that he avoids the fact that the police are the local people who are there if something happens. Whatever happens.
    While I wouldn’t support using armored cars to patrol city streets to stop jaywalking I do think they can have an important role during armed riots. They also may be useful in the case of terrorist attacks. Both of these are things that police could expect to deal with.
    But there are good reasons to limit the police to more precise weapons than are required by the military. Police have greater requirement to discriminate between the innocent and those that lethal force may be used on than the military does. And they have greater need not to destroy property. So a weapon system that will level a city block is not something that the police can reasonably use.

    1. Yes. Another poster commented about calling the National Guard instead. That’s like the anti gunners saying well just call the cops. But the cops are minutes away at best. Same idea with the Guard.

  16. Two questions –
    Is that thing street legal?
    Can I get it in red?

  17. While not true of every weapon (bayonets, seriously?) there are rare occasions where police do need enhanced weaponry, or else someone with enhanced weaponry needs to be called in for policing functions. But those instances are quite rare, though highly publicized. The problem is that when police are given these tools, they proliferate their use. Now many departments execute every search warrant with militarized force, as if growing plants they don’t like is equivalent to being a serial killer with hostages.

    The solution, however, is not to remove the tools. It is to criminally charge the officers who misuse the tools (and judges who rubber stamp bad warrants). And yes, this would mean a huge number of police would be charged if they continued to behave as they do now, but this is temporary. Once the expectations are established, I have no doubt most officers will then abide by the law.

  18. Ah, the Marines. Travel to distant foreign lands, meet exotic exciting people, and kill them.

    1. Don’t call it aggression; we hate that expression! They’d rather kill them off by peaceful means.

  19. Texas police used and MRAP during a SWAT raid? Oh, the horror.

    Of all questionable police shootings in the USA, I wonder how many have been carried out using army surplus rifles, instead of standard issued sidearms. I can’t even find a statistic with a simple google search, so I imagine that the number is low to nonexistent. Maybe trying to look at data for unlawful or even questionable use of these items would provide a compelling point, but a couple of anecdotes (like using an armored car in a SWAT raid—oh the humanity) and quotes from a couple of politicians and police officials, ain’t worth a bucket of warm spit.

    It seems to me that REASON covers police from two vantage points, first they want them all to be Andy Taylor walking around unarmed (or maybe like Deputy Fife with one bullet in his pocket), and second they assert that the answer to all issues in law enforcement is making it easier to sue them, which often makes me think that a major donor must be the trial lawyers association.

    1. The soi-disant skeptic misses the main point. Looter politicians make up myriad moronic mandatory requirements and enact them as laws. Every law is a promise to kill nearly the entire population of These Sovereign States if needed to cow the survivors into obedience. The more idiotic the order–like kill to stop people from inhaling the Avatars of Satan from plant leaves–the more the goons who enforce them deserve return fire and the politicians to be stripped, tarred and feathered. Police who defend individual rights are loved and respected.

  20. In a fascist dictatorship or machine-politics caudillo State the government’s job is to coerce and impoverish rightless slaves. And you betcha they need all the military gear they can get their hands on. Sooner or later, unequal yet apposite reprisal force will again level the playing field, but the key to doublethink is the struggle to keep believing that can’t happen. Those weapons are self-deception enablers that buy a little more time for the illegitimate satrapy.

    1. I guess that the words are English (all but one “caudillo”) but I have zero idea what Mr. Phillips is trying to say. It is almost like a random word generator wrote this. Probably a bot.

    2. I understand what Hank means and agree. As time goes on it becomes apparent that when a .38 and a nightstick are whats needed and you have a swat team and an MRAP -use them. It is a micro of the State he refers to. When MOMS defending their children are deemed terrorists by the Almighty State the Days of Reckoning are getting close. Another glaring example is the predawn combat assault arrest by the FBI of Roger Stone, (and others) a true desperado wielding a mighty pen and paper.

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