America’s Local Police Is Now the New Military

Military in St Louis

*The headline is inspired by police actions or reactions over the past months. Whether it’s the situation on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., where the shooting of Mike Brown motivated street riots that had police utilizing SWAT teams, rubber bullets, tear gas cannisters and armored vehicles; or the attitudes and actions of self-appointed “protectors” like Trayvon Martin killer, George Zimmerman, our local neighborhoods (and some of its inhabitants) are beginning to look less like communities of regular people and more like  war zones and soldiers.

Apparently, there’s a reason police across the U.S. have assumed this position and its pretty straightforward: Easy access to military equipment.

Because of the Pentagons 1033 program, passed by Congress in 1991, weapons originally meant for battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq are finding their way straight back home to U.S. police forces. Every year Congress green lights this program as part of the defense budget and because it is of low or no cost to law enforcement agencies, extra military weapons and equipment are easily transferred.

Congress had a worthy goal in mind at the time: keeping police safe. But more than 20 years later, as Zach Toombs writes, the program’s consequences are controversial.

Though record-keeping on how often SWAT teams are actually used for raids like this or for riot control, criminologist Peter Kraska estimates there are somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 SWAT raids in America each year — and that the number is growing.

Writing for The Washington Post, criminal justice blogger Radley Balko says, ” It’s past time for a public discussion about whether that sort of figure is appropriate and consistent with the values of a free society.”

And a moral discussion aside, some critics say paramilitary policing only makes a situation more dangerous. Take, for example, police reaction to protests over the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meeting in Seattle, using tear gas and military equipment.

Seattle’s police chief would later write, “Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict.”

And in Ferguson, it’s a familiar scene.





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