For many Americans it may not have been until the crackdown on those protesting the killing of Micheal Brown by the Ferguson, Missouri, police department that they learned how militarized local police have become in the post-9/11 world. Though police work became dramatically more bellicose when the Nixon Administration launched the War On Drugs, it was not until the War On Terror that high-grade military surplus starting being shoveled in earnest to local police.
The reason the War On Terror led to local police becoming outright armies is a Department of Defense Program under the Defense Logistics Agency. The Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 program allows local police to acquire military surplus weapons at the cost of transportation. Combine that with a culture of treating police work as counter-terrorism and suddenly police have the motive and the means to become merciless warriors.
But now, after the Ferguson war games, Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia wants to restrain the militarization of police forces by limiting the 1033 program.
A Democratic congressman is introducing a bill to curb a Defense Department program that provides machine guns and other surplus military equipment for free to local law enforcement agencies across the country. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia says his bill is a response to the death of an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer in a St. Louis suburb. The bill comes as members of Congress have called for the Justice Department to investigate the shooting in Ferguson, Mo.
Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a 24-year-old Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.
Since 2006, police have acquired at least 867 armored vehicles, 533 aircraft and 93,763 machine guns through the program. While Johnson’s bill will not take the weapons back, it could at least stop the flow of military gear from the Pentagon to local police. Spending a few thousand dollars to transport a million dollar armored vehicle is one thing, but having to spend a million dollars is another and local police budgets may not be able to cover the costs.
Johnson might have some surprising allies in Congress to limit 1033. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky recently wrote a piece for Time titled “We Must Demilitarize the Police” in response to the Ferguson shooting and subsequent police crackdown on protests. Given the 1033 program is essentially a government subsidy to militarize the police, there should be quite a few things Paul and those like him could find objectionable.
There may be a bipartisan coalition forming among libertarians and progressives to demilitarize police so they can go back to doing police work.