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Police militarization: Looking at policy solutions

REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Police militarization is one element of an ongoing, profound set of challenges to our national identity as a free society.

Late last month, police in Stettin, Wisconsin, arrived at the home of 75-year-old Roger Hoeppner to enforce the collection of a civil judgement. They arrived 24 officers strong, and in the company of a military-grade armored vehicle. In an after-action interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sheriff’s Captain Greg Bean noted that Hoeppner was not considered to be a threat, but had been “argumentative” in the past. Hence, the department’s need to employ military equipment.

Photo by Adrian Danciu
Matt Ehling

Hoeppner’s arrest is yet another example of a trend toward the “militarization” of local law-enforcement agencies — a development that is fundamentally changing the nature of policing across the United States. After years of low-profile growth, this trend received national media attention during the events in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this year. Televised images of heavily armed paramilitary police in the streets of suburban St. Louis created an immediate and broad-based national conversation around the matter.

Since that time, some lawmakers have openly discussed ways to address the trend of police militarization through policy changes — looking to correct practices that had been set in motion three decades earlier, during the height of America’s “War on Drugs.” An overview of this phenomenon provides suggestions for how excessive reliance on military hardware and tactics might be curbed.

Paramilitary policing at the source

Without a doubt, some military hardware can have legitimate law-enforcement applications. For instance, M-16 assault rifles can be useful tools during armed stand-offs. However, paramilitary hardware can also result in operational overkill — particularly when coupled with aggressive SWAT practices modeled on military combat tactics. This combination has proved to be lethal in scores of circumstances where police have used paramilitary tactics to raid the wrong homes based on faulty information. The number of such incidents has escalated as police have come to rely on paramilitary methods as default measures, rather than as emergency procedures.

The flow of military hardware to local police agencies has been a function of two major trends. First, federal programs such as the Pentagon’s “1033” program have provided surplus military hardware to civilian police departments — either for free or at deep discounts. Such programs were instigated under the Ronald Reagan administration, and were later expanded during Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House. At the same time, private military vendors have come to view police departments as an ancillary market for military equipment, and have heavily marketed their wares to law enforcement.

Federal programs create disconnect

On the supply front, federal surplus programs bear primarily responsibility for driving the boom in paramilitary equipment. The acquisition of hardware on the commercial market is far more costly, placing some practical limitations on equipment acquisition.

By limiting cost as a factor, federal give-away programs have expedited the flow of military hardware to the police, and have fostered a disconnect between actual departmental needs and the availability of equipment. In many instances, this has led to acquisitions and uses that would not otherwise have occurred. Thus, rural agencies across the United States have received mine-resistant military vehicles that are infrequently required for the circumstances present in those jurisdictions.  As in Stettin, Wisconsin, however, that has not stopped the gear from being deployed into the field.

The disconnect fostered by federal surplus programs is a natural place to begin a discussion of policy change. Congress should either act to limit the scope of such programs, or else set a higher bar for technology transfers. Gear availability should not result in de facto transfers to law enforcement without more substantive questions being asked.  

Since Ferguson, there has been some discussion (and at least one congressional hearing) about modifying the 1033 program, but it remains to be seen whether federal policy changes will actually transpire.

More local transparency required

If federal officials do not impose tighter constraints on hardware transfers, local officials are still able to do so. This requires transparency, as lawmakers cannot regulate what they cannot see.  

Full access to data about military-police transfers in Minnesota has been hard to come by, however. At least one state agency has answered a public record request about military hardware (filed by the Borgos for AG campaign) by denying access to the written rationales for why agencies have sought such equipment. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, such rationales constitute “security information” and are thus exempt from disclosure.

Opacity in police acquisition has been a growing issue in Minnesota, as was demonstrated by this year’s debate over “Stingray” cell phone surveillance equipment. However, once the veil of secrecy was lifted through data requests and media coverage, the Legislature was able to enact meaningful regulation of cell phone location surveillance. Will the same be true of military equipment maintained by Minnesota law-enforcement agencies?

Public input on hardware, tactics

Beyond state regulation, policy adjustments can be made at the county or municipal level. Localities should provide notice about what military equipment is being acquired by their police agencies, and citizens should have a chance to submit comments and feedback. As surprise was the main public reaction to the display of hardware in Ferguson earlier this year, it seems clear that the public needs to be put back in the discussion loop about what law enforcement is doing with the resources that it holds.

Beyond addressing the transfer of military equipment, lawmakers can also regulate the ways in which such equipment is used. In many cases of paramilitary over-reach, it is not only the availability of hardware that has created problems, but also the manner in which that hardware has been deployed. For example, SWAT teams were used in a series of 2010-era raids in Orlando, Florida, to check for barbers’ licenses. To avoid repeats of such situations, lawmakers could bar the use of paramilitary tactics in the service of licensure, administrative or related matters.

Likewise, if lawmakers are not willing to address such issues, judicial constraints can be brought to bear. As an example, the Florida barbershop raids resulted in a judicial ruling, which held that aggressive SWAT tactics were unconstitutional when used in the absence of a clear threat to office safety.  

Presentation makes a difference

Like tactics and hardware, officer presentation is another component of the debate over police militarization. To a certain extent, this debate is not only about changes to weaponry and methods, but also about changes to the public posture of the police institution itself. The trend toward paramilitarism has given rise to appearances by police in camouflage fatigues or black jumpsuits, with face masks used to conceal officer identities. We saw this on a local level during the Minneapolis ISAG protests of 2000, when masked SWAT officers were used to raid a protester’s home. We then saw the same phenomenon on a larger scale during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Although cosmetic, these uniform changes have a tangible impact on the public perception of the police, and their institutional legitimacy.  

From uniforms to tactics, a presentation of police militarism can generate real-word consequences that can escalate — rather than de-escalate — many situations. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has attested to this in recent years, after becoming a convert to the cause of police demilitarization.  

In 1999, Stamper helmed Seattle’s paramilitary response to the World Trade Organization protests in what was a groundbreaking, large-scale deployment of militarized police tactics that used armored vehicles, stun grenades and more.  Stamper has since conceded that the application was wrongheaded, and that it served to inflame violence by extreme elements of the crowd, rather than pacifying the situation.

Policymakers should undertake reforms

Police militarization is one element of an ongoing, profound set of challenges to our national identity as a free society. This year’s highly public discussions about the phenomenon present an opportunity to enact needed reforms. It is an opportunity that American policymakers should embrace.

Matt Ehling is a St. Paul-based writer and media producer who is active in government transparency and accountability efforts.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/26/2014 - 10:36 am.

    Yes

    This.

    Police militarization not only increases the chance of deadly mistakes involving innocent and/or unarmed citizens, essentially taking due process out of the law, but it separates the police from the rest of the citizenship, further increasing the risk of clashes between police and non-police citizens.

    Are we at war within our own borders and between our own citizens? Watching Ferguson, and reading about police raids using military-like force for such piddly things as barbers’ licenses, it would almost seem so.

    I like the approach that Chief Harteau is taking with the Minneapolis police department–get them out of their rolling cages and in front of the people they’re serving, and build trust by reinforcing good cop behavior with video backup.

    Some people need to stop assuming that, when a clash happens between a cop and another citizen, the cop is always right. On the other hand, some people need to stop assuming that, when a clash happens between a cop and another citizen, that the citizen is a helpless and blameless victim. If the police continue toward militarization, the legal determination of who is right and who is wrong goes out the window and it becomes, simply, who is dead.

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