Written By: Anton Sawyer
I cannot imagine anyone who has seen the levels of police brutality that have been on display over the last few decades thinks to themselves, “you know, law enforcement needs more military-grade weapons.” Well, it seems someone has not only had that idea but also embraced it with open arms.
Since President Biden has taken office, it seems that this once news headline-grabbing part of the American landscape has gone into the background. This decline in reporting, along with the continuation of seeing serious armament utilized by local law enforcement is what I will look at in today’s piece. In reality, this transaction between federal and state agencies is still very much alive and is only getting worse.
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Under a Freedom of Information Act request, hundreds of letters were obtained showing that local law enforcement agencies across America wrote to the Department of Defense in 2017 and 2018 making the case to receive an armored vehicle under the 1033 program. For those unaware, the Pentagon’s 1033 program transfers weapons and equipment from America’s foreign wars directly to domestic law enforcement agencies. The documents reveal that hundreds of police departments across the country, in communities of all sizes, are willing to deploy armored vehicles to carry out even the most routine tasks: making traffic stops, serving search warrants, responding to domestic violence, responding to people threatening suicide.
Imagine that for a moment. You are at your wit's end. You are depressed, suicidal. Your mom finds your plans to take your life, and in an attempt to save you, she calls the authorities ... who shows up in an armored Humvee. I cannot fathom any reality where this would help ANYONE.
The numbers from 2021 show this trend continuing. An April report done by Stephen Semler (an independent consultant and Associate Researcher for Armament Research Services and co-founder of Security Policy Reform Institute) showed that in the first quarter of 2021, a large number of military vehicles were transferred through the 1033 program. In fact, military vehicles (246) comprised most of the total acquisition value ($21,902,009 out of $33,506,765). Despite his comments in the summer of 2020, Biden has failed to seize multiple opportunities to reform the Pentagon’s 1033 program. The White House had even prepared an executive order to limit the program during his first week in office, but Biden never signed it. Democrats have introduced multiple bills to limit or end the program, but Biden has remained silent. As we’ve seen since 2015, if a political leader doesn’t openly discuss something (making it a part of the news cycle), it usually dies in the background. In our world today, it’s hard enough to focus on what is thrown into the news by our political leaders already, let alone the background white noise from a 24-hour cycle.
These officer requests and White House silence are troubling enough. But when you see the plans/rationale for it all, it will give you nightmares.
In the above-mentioned requests, law enforcement officials predicted they would roll out these vehicles into their communities 10, 20, 40, 70, or more than 100 times a year, and in situations that are not automatically dangerous. The sheriff’s office of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, went so far as to assert that a police officer could die serving a notice of a civil lawsuit—and so his agency ought to have two armored vehicles. A statement released by that same office sums this idea up pretty well. “Deputies and police officers die every day performing routine assignments. It is always better to have protection and not need it than to have none while in need.” This begs the question, are all these enhanced weapons necessary? Well, not really …
An event in early August 2021 at the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland, Ohio illustrated perfectly that the use of military-grade weaponry isn't needed. Nine inmates refused to re-enter their cells for lockdown and began damaging plumbing in a housing unit and enacted the beginnings of a potential riot. This unit was somewhat special as it housed some of the state's most violent criminals. A majority of the nine individuals involved in the disturbance have been charged with aggravated murder and are awaiting trial. Knowing who they were dealing with could have caused an escalated response by the officers, but it didn't. Cooler heads prevailed and corrections officers were able to regain control simply by using pepper balls. No live-ammo guns. No illegal chokeholds. It was just enough force to regain control of the situation.
The other event that I’ll look at has become a giant stain on America’s history during the 21st century: Lafayette Square. All that was needed to (legally) remove those protestors were horses, riot shields, batons, pepper spray, and tear gas. As horrible as it was though, it could have been much worse if military munitions had been used. The report released by the Inspector General in June 2021 about the chain of events that led to protesters being teargassed near the White House in June 2020 reveals there are still some unanswered questions. Yes, the IG report made it clear there would be no criminal suits stemming from the gassing, stating “the evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP (United States Park Police) cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.” It continues, “Instead, the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the anti-scale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31." Yet it does not offer perspective on whether the injury to officers necessitated clearing the park. With this legal maneuvering on full display, I doubt that the armament used would have made a difference in the not guilty verdict. Though the event at Lafayette Square has no direct resolution involving the police getting expanded weapons caches, it is worth mentioning when it comes to how future protestors may be dealt with.
We can argue “de-fund the police” versus “re-fund the police” all day, but that has nothing to do with whether the police will get militarized weapons or not. The vehicles, munitions, all of it are being transferred over. Whether a state (or other local municipality) votes to increase spending measures or not, these items are being handed over en masse. We have seen murders and other atrocities befall many innocent people targeted by law enforcement with only what those cops are given by the force. As I mentioned previously though, we have also seen other officers be able to diminish potentially disastrous outcomes when dealing with those who may be on the wrong side of the law without the need of lethal force—even if the legality of their tactics are dubious at best. It should go without saying, but until we can figure out a way to tip the scales towards more stories of police containing problems, and not stories of them killing innocent people, I think it’s imperative to err on the side of caution.
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