by John Whitehead:
“If we’re training cops as soldiers, giving them equipment like soldiers, dressing them up as soldiers, when are they going to pick up the mentality of soldiers? If you look at the police department, their creed is to protect and to serve. A soldier’s mission is to engage his enemy in close combat and kill him. Do we want police officers to have that mentality? Of course not.”— Arthur Rizer, former civilian police officer and member of the military
Talk about poor timing. Then again, perhaps it’s brilliant timing.
Only now—after the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security (DHS) and Defense have passed off billions of dollars worth of military equipment to local police forces, after police agencies have been trained in the fine art of war, after SWAT team raids have swelled in number to more than 80,000 a year, after it has become second nature for local police to look and act like soldiers, after communities have become acclimated to the presence of militarized police patrolling their streets, after Americans have been taught compliance at the end of a police gun or taser, after lower income neighborhoods have been transformed into war zones, after hundreds if not thousands of unarmed Americans have lost their lives at the hands of police who shoot first and ask questions later, after a whole generation of young Americans has learned to march in lockstep with the government’s dictates—only now does President Obama lift a hand to limit the number of military weapons being passed along to local police departments.
Not all, mind you, just some.
Talk about too little, too late.
Months after the White House defended a federal program that distributed $18 billion worth of military equipment to local police, Obama has announced that he will ban the federal government from providing local police departments with tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms and large-caliber firearms.
Obama also indicated that less heavy-duty equipment (armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, riot gear and specialized firearms and ammunition) will reportedly be subject to more regulations such as local government approval, and police being required to undergo more training and collect data on the equipment’s use. Perhaps hoping to sweeten the deal, the Obama administration is also offering $163 million in taxpayer-funded grants to “incentivize police departments to adopt the report’s recommendations.”
While this is a grossly overdue first step of sorts, it is nevertheless a first step from an administration that has been utterly complicit in accelerating the transformation of America’s police forces into extensions of the military. Indeed, as investigative journalist Radley Balko points out, while the Obama administration has said all the right things about the need to scale back on a battlefield mindset, it has done all the wrong things to perpetuate the problem:
- distributed equipment designed for use on the battlefield to local police departments,
- provided private grants to communities to incentivize SWAT team raids,
- redefined “community policing” to reflect aggressive police tactics and funding a nationwide COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program that has contributed to dramatic rise in SWAT teams,
- encouraged the distribution of DHS anti-terror grants and the growth of “contractors that now cater to police agencies looking to cash DHS checks in exchange for battle-grade gear,”
- ramped up the use of military-style raids to crack down on immigration laws and target “medical marijuana growers, shops, and dispensaries in states that have legalized the drug,”
- defended as “reasonable” aggressive, militaristic police tactics in cases where police raided a guitar shop in defense of an obscure environmental law, raided a home looking for a woman who had defaulted on her student loans, and terrorized young children during a raid on the wrong house based on a mistaken license plate,
- and ushered in an era of outright highway robbery in which asset forfeiture laws have been used to swindle Americans out of cash, cars, houses, or other property that government agents can “accuse” of being connected to a crime.
It remains to be seen whether this overture on Obama’s part, coming in the midst of heightened tensions between the nation’s police forces and the populace they’re supposed to protect, opens the door to actual reform or is merely a political gambit to appease the masses all the while further acclimating the populace to life in a police state.
Certainly, on its face, it does nothing to ease the misery of the police state that has been foisted upon us. In fact, Obama’s belated gesture of concern does little to roll back the deadly menace of overzealous police agencies corrupted by money, power and institutional immunity. And it certainly fails to recognize the terrible toll that has been inflicted on our communities, our fragile ecosystem of a democracy, and our freedoms as a result of the government’s determination to bring the war home.