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War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2014 Fall Newsletter >>WeberStateCivilLibertiesForum

In June, the ACLU published a report showing that excessive police militarization is a nationwide trend, and the time has come to deescalate. After obtaining and analyzing thousands of documents from police departments around the country, including from several agencies in Utah, the ACLU released the report War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. The ACLU focused on more than 800 SWAT raids conducted by law enforcement agencies in 20 states (including Utah) and on the agencies’ acquisition of military weaponry, vehicles, and equipment.

The report revealed that in Utah and around the country, heavily-armed SWAT teams are raiding people’s homes in the middle of the night, often just to search for drugs. Our neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. And yet, every year, billions of dollars worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments – departments that then use these wartime weapons in everyday policing. 

Indeed, under the federal 1033 program (1033), created ostensibly to encourage aggressive enforcement of the War on Drugs, and later to combat terrorism, the federal government has transferred $4.3 billion worth of property to more than 17,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies.  While some of the military hardware transferred under this program is relatively benign, it also includes armored personnel carriers, most notably the MRAP or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which is designed to protect military personnel from armor-piercing roadside bombs.

In 2014, equipment was also distributed under 1033 to more than 20 school districts, including the Granite School District in Utah.  All told, 89 agencies in Utah have participated in 1033.  More than 600 MRAPs have been sent to local law enforcement agencies in almost every state in the U.S., mostly within the past year.  Here in Utah, local agencies (Iron County, Utah County, Salt Lake County, Weber County and Box Elder County) acquired 6 MRAPs in 2013 and 2014.  

Surprisingly, the transfer of this equipment is not conditioned on any requirements to account to the public or to the federal government as to how and when 1033 equipment is being used.  Recipient agencies are not required to evaluate whether the goals of 1033 are being met, for example, whether drugs or terrorism are being reduced due to the receipt of federal military equipment.  Furthermore, data does not demonstrate that areas with large populations or high crime rates are necessarily receiving more or less than their share of the items. Nor is a greater amount of equipment being sent to areas along the U.S. borders or coasts, places more likely to be drug trafficking corridors or terrorist targets. 

The receiving agencies should be required to report to the communities they serve when military equipment is obtained and when the same is deployed.  Local police policies should mandate that the appearance of a military presence such as an MRAP is restricted to only those high-risk situations that justify use of military grade equipment, and that once a mission is completed, military gear is put away.  In the absence of such policies, communities will be wont to perceive that local law enforcement is acting in an unnecessarily militarized fashion.

At the federal level, bipartisan interest is growing to restrict the 1033 program.  The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, introduced in Congress this September, seeks among other things, to prevent transfers of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, weaponized drones, armored vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives.  

Find out more about our work on Police Practices including the report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” at  www.acluutah.org/police-practices