Comment: Why many police departments look like military units

The militarization of police departments has increased incidents where undue force has led to tragedy.

By Philip V. McHarris / Special To The Washington Post

Americans have been outraged by video of the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Monday. Floyd died soon after an officer knelt on his neck for several minutes as he visibly struggled for breath and cried out for help. The video of the violent encounter resulted in the firing of four Minneapolis police officers. The city’s mayor, Jacob Frey, stated, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.”

But protests erupted just 24 hours after Floyd’s death, with demonstrators calling for structural change, recognizing this as the latest in a long history of black people killed at the hands of the police, chanting, “No justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.” Activists criticized the mayor for increasing funds to the Minneapolis Police Department: They demanded cuts to the department’s budget and reinvestment in community infrastructure.

Such protests have become common in a country where more than 1,000 people annually are killed by police, with black people three times as likely as whites to be the victims. Also common is what happened soon after demonstrators gathered to protest Floyd’s death: Police in riot gear shot tear gas canisters into the crowds and fired stun grenades and “nonlethal projectiles” at demonstrators, injuring many. It was stunningly easy to point to the same department’s gentle treatment weeks ago against white anti-lockdown protesters while those protesting against police violence were met with militarized violence.

But this too should not surprise us. Police departments have come to resemble military units, contributing to deadly violence disproportionately against black Americans. While many policies related to policing and mass incarceration happen at the local level, the militarization of police has been promulgated by federal policies.

Militarized policing dates to the 1960s. The acquisition of military-grade gear by local police departments began under Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime. The 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) established a federal funding stream to increase the strength and size of local law enforcement. The federal stream also provided police departments with funding for military-grade equipment. In 1968, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act making this funding stream permanent.

While the LEAA began the sustained flow of federal money and resources for the growth and increased sophistication of local police, the war on drugs and hysteria around increases in violence supercharged the practice. Richard Nixon began an aggressive campaign to curb drug use and distribution in June 1971. The war framing Nixon employed was clear: Police became frontline soldiers trying to aggressively rid the nation of drug sales and use.

The war on drugs intensified during the 1980s in large part because of hysteria surrounding crack cocaine and the perceived violence that purportedly came along with the use and sale of crack. This intensification disproportionately affected black communities. Congress, and states, enacted massive sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, disproportionately targeting African Americans. More broadly, sentencing for drug-related offenses became increasingly punitive, leading to longer prison sentences, including increased numbers of people sentenced to life in prison, helping fuel mass incarceration.

Then, President George H.W. Bush — who made crime a key issue in the 1988 presidential campaign, hammering his opponent Gov. Michael Dukakis, D-Mass., for not being tough enough on criminals — supported a number of tough-on-crime measures that increased incarceration and strengthened and militarized police forces. But the 1988 election’s political legacy was broader than that. It created a punitive, political context that pushed Democrats to espouse tough-on-crime stances as well. The 1994 Crime Bill, initially written by then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., flooded black communities with police, helped states to build prisons and established harsher sentencing policies.

Of course, Biden wasn’t alone and the 1994 Crime Bill wasn’t the only driver of police militarization. In 1989, the Democratic-controlled 101st Congress had passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including “Section 1208” funding that allowed for the transfer of military items to local and state police departments specifically for counterdrug activities.

There were cases of law enforcement agencies abusing the program in its early years, which led to some cities demanding the program’s repeal. But instead, a now-Republican Congress made the program permanent in 1996, even removing the clause limiting items to use for counterdrug activities. While guidelines pushed police to use equipment for counterdrug and counterterrorist enforcement, they were no longer statutorily limited.

Local police departments welcomed the newly available gear and many amassed stockpiles of equipment in the following decades. SWAT teams, deployed raids and other police activities where military-grade equipment was utilized exploded across the country; creating droves of militarized police that increasingly looked like soldiers. As police departments acquired billions of dollars of military-grade equipment, there was no required training. Even worse, departments had to use what they acquired at least once within one year of receiving them; a clause that incentivized using unnecessary force and surveillance.

After a white police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014, local residents organized months of sustained protest against the killing, sparking a national Movement for Black Lives against police violence. During the months of activism in Ferguson, images of armored police vehicles and clouds of tear gas used to quell mostly black protesters shocked the nation. Across the country many wondered how local police got their hands on military-grade equipment.

The pushback led then-President Obama to research and release a 2014 Executive Office report on how federal programs had supplied police departments with military equipment. He issued Executive Order 13688, placing restrictions on the federal transfer and funding of military equipment for local police that blocked the inclusion of gear such as tracked armored vehicles, rifles with bayonets, battering rams, riot gear and explosives. The executive order also required more training and stricter documentation requirements around the use of the gear.

But, President Trump reversed Obama’s restrictions and fully restored the program Obama had cut. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said to the Federal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee: “Those restrictions went too far. … We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.” The Trump administration has allowed equipment to flow freely and intensified concerns around the danger that militarized police forces bring.

Researchers in recent years have shown that places with more military gear have increased police killings. Today military gear is used to execute routine warrants and raids. The war on drugs era also produced laws paving the way for no-knock and quick-knock warrants, making way for scores of botched raids. More than 40,000 raids are done each year across the country — disproportionately in black and Latinx communities, overwhelmingly for the execution of drug warrants — and often leading to tragic, unnecessary injuries and fatalities, including the recent killing of Breonna Taylor.

The cycle of police brutality sparking unrest, and that unrest being met by the militarized police is increasingly familiar in modern American society. Tough-on-crime policies and militarized police departments have paved the way for increased police contact and tragic violence. Reducing the capacity for police to engage in routine and militaristic violence is the only way to break recurring cycles of police killings and the militarized response that protests of them are often met with.

Philip V. McHarris is a writer and doctoral candidate in sociology and African American studies at Yale University.

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