With heavily armored vehicles stationed in the streets and law enforcement officers dressed in camouflage, many have dubbed Ferguson, Mo., a "war zone."
After a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown Aug. 9, much of the conversation has focused on race relations, and the interactions between police and the community. There’s also been criticism of local police forces using military-style equipment and generally giving the appearance of conducting a military operation.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., weighed in on this topic in a Time magazine column, where he said big government’s to blame for this trend.
"Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement."
Many recent media reports have tied police militarization to a federal program that gives surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., has announced that he’s working on a bill to amend this program, in order to scale back police militarization, in light of the situation in Ferguson.
We wanted to know more about the program and what experts had to say about it.
They told us that the program certainly has contributed to a militarized police force, but that's not the only reason.
What is this program, and is it to blame?
Paul’s talking about the 1033 program, known as such because it’s outlined in section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.
Congress first approved the program in the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (then section 1208), as part of the country’s war on drugs, which began in the 1970s. Law enforcement agencies felt outgunned -- police carried handguns, while drug criminals wielded assault rifles. However, much of the equipment the agencies wanted was far out of their price range.
The 1033 program allows local law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military equipment, at nearly no cost (they have to pay for transporting the equipment). This ranges from field gear -- like assault weapons, armored vehicles, night-vision goggles and bulletproof vests -- to office supplies -- like filing cabinets, computers and desks.
More than 8,000 agencies participate in the 1033 program, which has given out more than $5 billion in property since it started, according to the website of the Defense Logistics Agency, the government body that oversees the program. (To be clear, the incentive here is the free equipment alone, not any additional payment or reward for accepting it.)
Law enforcement agencies apply for specific equipment through the Defense Logistics Agency. Agencies are given preference if they request equipment specifically for counter-drug and counter-terrorism purposes.
Additionally, since 9/11, law enforcement agencies have received grants from the Department of Homeland Security to address potential terrorist threats, and some have used those grants to purchase military gear.
Public opinion on police using military equipment varies with context, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation and a former police chief. For example, in the case of a major bank robbery where multiple robbers have machine guns and are holding people hostage, the community would likely be glad their local police has comparable weapons, an armored vehicle and protective gear.
However, when police break out that sort of equipment and military-style tactics at a peaceful protest, they look understandably bad, Bueermann said.
For example, HBO television host John Oliver ridiculed police in Keene, N.H., recently for requesting a "military-grade armored personnel truck," citing the town’s annual pumpkin festival as a potential terrorist target. (We rated Oliver’s statement True.)
What else is at play?
We spoke with many experts, and all agreed that there is an upward trend of police militarization. They said the 1033 program has accelerated this trend, but it’s not the sole cause. Much of the change is rooted in police culture.
In fact, many of the experts we spoke with said that absent the 1033 program, police would still want military-grade equipment -- they just wouldn’t be able to afford it.
"Militarization is not just equipment -- it’s an ideology and a mindset," said Victor Kappeler, associate dean of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University.
The shift from a community service culture to one that is more militaristic began in the 1960s with the rise of SWAT teams -- made prominent by the Los Angeles Police Department and their response to the violent Watts Riots, said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Police departments across the country quickly created their own SWAT teams elite squads that used military-like tactics.
Police started to use SWAT-like tactics in less hostile situations -- such as no-knock raids to execute low-level drug busts -- because of a small (and in some cases unreasonable) fear that they would encounter heavily armed suspects, Buchner said.
"That training seeped into other parts of police operations and police culture," Buchner said.
The 1033 program has exacerbated the problem, because in the past, when police agencies didn’t have this equipment, they were unable to act as a military force, Kappeler said. Instead of responding to a protest with armored vehicles, they would have had to address the issue in a "community-based" way.
But it’s not just the government pushing this equipment on law enforcement agencies. Private defense manufacturers have also started to make dual-purpose equipment that they can market to the military, as well as civilian law enforcement agencies, said Kathleen Campbell, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who studies role convergence between police and the military. (Campbell asked us to note that her views and research are her own and do not reflect the views of West Point, the army or the federal government.)
Now when police officers see military-style equipment and uniforms in catalogs, they think that’s what they’re supposed to look like -- perpetuating the culture, said John DeCarlo, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police chief, in a Washington Post interview.
Culture spillover also comes from interactions between the police and military, Campbell said, noting that the two collaborate in anti-drug and anti-terror efforts.
Aspects of police work that mirror the military -- like officer hierarchy and a focus on discipline -- make the profession a good fit for former military personnel. A 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that 10 percent of all employed male veterans ages 18 to 54 work in some sort of protective service, which includes police, sheriff officers, correctional officers, bailiffs and security workers.
The recent recession also could have forced police to lose sight of community policing, Bueermann said. Stripped down to their bare bones, some agencies have lost community policing positions, like school resource officers, and are left only with the law enforcement positions. This makes them appear less like they are there to help the community and more like they are there to control it. And it has made agencies more inclined to take advantage of programs like 1033 because they can get free equipment.
Paul said, "Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts."
We found that the government’s 1033 program, which gives surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, has contributed to police militarization by offering free equipment. But it’s not the only thing. Police culture has shifted toward militarization for a number of reasons over the past 40 years. The program (and Washington) might not be the cause of police militarization, but it does incentivize and allow that culture to continue.
We rate Paul’s statement True.