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August 23, 2014
Militarization of American Policing a Nationwide Problem
    by Robert Kropp

An ACLU report originally published in June gains especial relevance in the wake of the paramilitary response to civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

Indelible by now are the images of police activity in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown. Everywhere on social media I see images comparing the appearance of US soldiers in Iraq with that of the police in Ferguson. The differences are negligible, except that only in Ferguson were the police massed in formation with assault rifles pointed directly at their fellow citizens.

Widely known by now as well is how towns and small cities across the US have come into possession of equipment purchased by the military for use in wars. The federal government has supplied the equipment to them, at no cost and with no training, ostensibly to prevent or respond to terrorist action on US soil in the aftermath of 9/11. But what to do with all that weaponry when there is no terrorist cell planning an attack in your town? A report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), originally published in June, is even more illuminating following the events in Ferguson.

Entitled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, the report details not only the process of police militarization but also the almost complete absence of oversight of the process. Instead of being deployed in response to terrorist threats, SWAT teams and military equipment are being used to serve search warrants on suspicion of often low-level drug activity. As the images of Ferguson make all to clear, those impacted the majority of times are people of color.

“Reform must be systemic,” the report states. “The problems of overly aggressive policing are cultural and cannot be solved by merely identifying a few 'bad apples' or dismissing the problem as a few isolated incidents.”

In a 2009 audit by the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Inspector General identified two programs that provided military-grade equipment to municipalities:
1. The State Homeland Security Program provides financial assistance directly to each of the states and territories to prevent, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism; and
2. the Urban Areas Security Initiative provides financial assistance to address the unique planning, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-risk urban areas, and to assist them in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, respond to, and recover from threats or acts of terrorism.

The programs, the audit itself acknowledged, too often contained insufficient information from states about which municipalities had acquired the equipment. Furthermore, the ACLU report was pointed in its conclusion that the programs themselves created “incentives for local police to engage in excessively militarized tactics.” The federal government, the report advises, “holds the purse strings, and easing the flow of federal funds and military-grade equipment into states and localities would have a significant impact on the overuse of hyper-aggressive tactics and military-grade tools in local communities.”

The Obama administration has announced that a number of departments and Congress will be conducting a review of the policy of arming municipal police forces with military equipment. In a press conference earlier this week, the President said there is “a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred.”

The ACLU was equally emphatic in recommending that states and municipalities establish clear guidelines for the use of military responses by police, rather than leaving it it to police departments themselves to determine when to deploy. And local police departments are urged to avoid forms of training that encourage a warrior mindset in its officers.

“The public has a right to know how law enforcement agencies are policing its communities and spending its tax dollars,” the report concluded. “The militarization of American policing has occurred with almost no oversight, and it is time to shine a bright light on the policies, practices, and weaponry that have turned too many of our neighborhoods into war zones.”

In a CNN article, report author Kara Dansky expressed the prevailing concern succinctly.

“It's time for the federal government to stop financing a siege on communities of color,” Dansky wrote.


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