Ferguson and Militarized Police

Today is the anniversary of the killing of unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Sadly this was far from the first killing of unarmed people, especially people of color, by white police officers. Television coverage of Michael Brown’s death, though, brought these killings into the homes of Americans, largely because of the rising up of Ferguson’s Black community. White Americans finally began to learn of the tensions related to police and Black communities, and were stunned by the callous way Michael’s body was left lying on the street for hours.

This was also the first time most of us learned about the militarization of our civilian police departments. We were shocked by the scenes from the streets of Ferguson, and to realize armored vehicles could be rolling down our own streets. We began to see the extent to which the police were seeing us as the enemy. We learned about the Pentagon’s 1033 program, part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, that allowed the Pentagon to donate surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

From the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL):

“Ferguson is just one of many communities to receive equipment through this program. Towns all over the country now possess Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and other equipment designed for a war zone. Police in towns such as Columbia, South Carolina; McLennan County, Texas; Nampa, Idaho; West Lafayette, Indiana; St. Cloud, Minnesota; Yuma, Arizona; Calhoun, Alabama; and at Ohio State University are kitted out to respond to violent extremists with lethal, military force.

The U.S. response to the September 11 attacks is partly behind this dangerous escalation. Suddenly, communities felt they needed to be on high alert at all times, ready to respond to any threat. In this culture of fear, the Pentagon spent billions of dollars on weapons and equipment for war. That equipment went to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. As troops came home, surplus equipment went straight to police departments, thanks to the 1033 program.

For a police department like Ferguson’s, the path to becoming a paramilitary force is a short one. After getting this free military gear, law enforcement agents use it. The 1033 program’s regulations require that the police use what they receive within one year.” https://www.fcnl.org/updates/how-tanks-got-to-main-street-1009

My experience related to Ferguson was getting to know a group of young people who met through social media discussions of Michael Brown’s killing. Previously strangers, this group who became know as Indy10 (there were originally 10 people involved) got together to take water and food to Ferguson the weekend after the killing, and to offer their support. They were radicalized by the experience, and have worked very hard to bring attention to these issues to the Indianapolis community ever since. Indy10 became Indianapolis’ Black Lives Matter organizers. One way I contributed was to help create a questionnaire that was used to take into the community to learn how people felt about relations with local law enforcement.

In 2015 President Obama placed restrictions on what the Pentagon could give to local police departments.

A year ago President Trump reversed those restrictions. “Those restrictions went too far,” Mr. Sessions said. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety.”

More from FCNL “How Tanks Got to Main Street”:

“Rolling back the 1033 program is important, but it’s not enough. Through the Department of Homeland Security’s “terrorism grants” program, local police departments have received more than $34 billion to acquire surveillance drones, Army tanks, and other equipment ill-suited for local policing. Like the 1033 program, these grants contribute to militarized policing that damages trust between police officers and community members. We are encouraging members of Congress to roll back this program as well.”

Following are some of the recommendation from the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing”

“The militarization of policing is one example of how contemporary policing in America is failing to deliver on its primary objective of protecting and serving communities. The culture of policing in America needs to evolve beyond the failed War on Drugs, and the police should stop perceiving the people who live in the communities they patrol—including those the police suspect of criminal activity—as enemies.
This type of reform must be achieved systemically and include a transformation in police culture; the problems of overly aggressive policing cannot be solved by disciplining a few officers or dismissing the problem as a few isolated incidents. These recommendations are aimed at ensuring that law enforcement responses minimize harm to civilians and property and maximize as oppose to jeopardize the safety of everyone involved.
The federal government should take the lead by reining in programs that incentivize local police to engage in excessively militarized tactics, especially in drug cases. The federal government holds the purse strings, and restricting the flow of federal funds and military-grade equipment into states and localities, and/or conditioning funds on the appropriate use and training with regards to such equipment, would significantly reduce the overuse of hyper-aggressive tactics and military-grade tools in local communities.”

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