BURLINGTON, Vt. – The Burlington police department unilaterally decided to sever ties with a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows law enforcement agencies to procure surplus military equipment, freeing the department from one significant form of federal influence and control.
A Burlington TV station reported on the move, saying the department had obtained two night vision devices through the program before deciding not to participate.
“There are times when military-style equipment is essential for public safety, but they are very rare,” Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said. “We have the resources to handle all but the most inconceivable public safety scenarios. Amassing a worst-case scenario arsenal of military equipment results in officers seeing everyday policework through a military lens. When I realized what a small role the military played in equipping our police, I concluded it was better to return the items.”
FEDERAL SURPLUS AND GRANT MONEY
Through the federal 1033 Program, local police departments procure military grade weapons, including automatic assault rifles, body armor and mine resistant armored vehicles – essentially unarmed tanks. Police departments can even get their hands on military helicopters and other aircraft.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) runs the “Homeland Security Grant Program,” which in 2013 gave more than $900 million in counterterrorism funds to state and local police. According to a 2012 Senate report, this money has been used to purchase tactical vehicles, drones, and even tanks with little obvious benefit to public safety. And, according to ProPublica, “In 1994, the Justice Department and the Pentagon funded a five-year program to adapt military security and surveillance technology for local police departments that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”
COMMAND AND CONTROL
“Arming ‘peace officers’ like they’re ready to occupy an enemy city is totally contrary to the society envisioned by the Founders,” Michael Boldin of the Tenth Amendment Center said, echoing del Pozo’s thoughts. “They’ve turned ‘protect and serve’ into ‘command and control.’”
In the 1980s, the federal government began arming, funding and training local police forces, turning peace officers into soldiers to fight in its unconstitutional “War on Drugs.” The militarization went into hyper-drive after 9/11 when a second front opened up – the “War on Terror.”
By stripping state and local police of this military-grade gear and requiring them to report on their acquisition and use, it makes them less likely to cooperate with the feds and removes incentives for partnerships.
THE WAY FORWARD
Very few police chiefs have the moral clarity demonstrated by del Pozo. We can’t rely on local police departments to turn their backs on all the free gear dangled in front of them by the feds. The vast majority won’t – not on their own.
But state and local governments can stop militarization of their police departments through laws and ordinances.
Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law requiring law enforcement agencies to get approval from a local government body before applying for military equipment. This creates a transparent process and gives area residents an avenue to stop militarization altogether through local action.
Montana took things a step further, passing a law prohibiting police agencies from procuring certain types of military equipment at all.
Local governments don’t have to wait for the state to act. They control their local police departments, and they can generally restrict or even ban militarization on their own initiative.
To take action to push back against federal militarization of police in your state, click HERE.