After A Temporary Show Of Enthusiasm, Government Lapses Back Into Not Caring About The Militarization Of The Nation's Police
from the faint-signs-of-life dept
It’s an idea that almost makes sense, provided you don’t examine it too closely. America’s neverending series of intervention actions and pseudo-wars has created a wealth of military surplus — some outdated, some merely more than what was needed. Rather than simply scrap the merchandise or offload it at cut-rate prices to other countries’ militaries (and face the not-unheard-of possibility that those same weapons/vehicles might be used against us), the US government decided to distribute it to those fighting the war (on drugs, mostly) at home: law enforcement agencies.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it quickly became a way to turn police departments into low-rent military operations. Law enforcement officials sold fear and bought assault rifles, tear gas, grenade launchers and armored vehicles. They painted vivid pictures of well-armed drug cabals and terrorists, both domestic and otherwise, steadily encroaching on the everyday lives of the public, outmanning and outgunning the servers and protectors.
It worked. The Department of Homeland Security was so flattered by the parroting of its terrorist/domestic extremist talking points that it handed out generous grants and ignored incongruities, like a town of 23,000 requesting an armored BearCat because its annual Pumpkinfest might be a terrorist target.
Then the Ferguson protests began after Michael Brown’s shooting in August, and the media was suddenly awash in images of camouflage-clad cops riding armored vehicles while pointing weapons at protesters, looking for all the world like martial law had been declared and the military had arrived to quell dissent and maintain control.
This prompted a discussion that actually reached the halls of Congress. For a brief moment, it looked like there might be a unified movement to overhaul the mostly-uncontrolled military equipment re-gifting program. But now that the indictment has been denied and the city of Ferguson is looted and burning, those concerns appear to have been forgotten.
Lawmakers vowed changes to the Pentagon programs that deliver military-grade equipment to local police after images of cops climbing out of armored vehicles with military-grade weapons filtered out of Ferguson, Missouri, in August.
But months later, the chaotic 1033 program — which sends surplus military gear built for combat to local police forces with little oversight — hasn’t changed at all.
The 113th Congress will end without substantive changes to the program. The White House hasn’t announced the results of its policy review. The flow of billions in technology designed for the battlefield to local police forces will go on unabated.
While some legislators got caught up in the moment, others have been fighting this battle for much longer. Rep. Hank Johnson has been pushing for an overhaul since late last year, when he had the dubious “privilege” of walking behind some repurposed military equipment during a small town Christmas parade. This not being an issue du jour for Johnson has helped his credibility, but has had little real impact. Even those whose legislation pursuits aren’t a product of the prevailing winds still find the prevailing winds to be a frustration.
“We were ready to introduce that legislation just before we left for the August break, but my staff and I decided to wait until we returned into session before we actually filed it. So during that time, of course, Ferguson happened,” Johnson told BuzzFeed News. “When Ferguson happened it was a visual display of what my legislation was attempting to stop, and that was the free-flow of military-grade weaponry onto the streets of America. … Then we were able to get some bipartisan interest in this bill.”
From that point, there was a brief period of intense bipartisan momentum to investigate and change the program — before that momentum hit a wall.
Others — including President Obama — promised to look into the program. Obama ordered the first top-level review of the Pentagon’s 1033 program in over 20 years, but weeks later, there’s been nothing reported.
Police organizations have ramped up their support of the program, throwing fear into politicians who know that coming across as anti-police doesn’t gain them much support from the demographic that actually votes in large numbers. A mid-term election has also added to the problem, with new membership changing priorities and old supporters finding themselves looking for day jobs.
The government returns to stasis. Police militarization continues to remain on the public’s radar, something clearly not reflected by their representatives. And when the representatives do show some awareness of the warlike agencies prowling the nation’s cities under the guise of law enforcement, what will they see? They’ll see images of Officer Wilson standing over the body of the unarmed man he shot replaced by images of used car lots on fire and looters grabbing essentials like hair care products and Funyuns from local businesses. In short, they’ll see all the justification they’ll ever need to see.
2,200 National Guard troops are on their way to Ferguson and any appearance of military weapons and vehicles now appears completely justified, even if police officers have handled riots for years without these Pentagon-supplied luxuries. By the time life returns to normal, the difference between “armed occupying force” and “peace officers” will have shrunk even further.