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How We Brought Basra to Oakland: An Analysis on Police Militarization

By Saad Asad


Videos like these and the recent police violence against the Occupy protests remind us of how militarized the police have become in recent years. Even in a city as serene as Newport Beach, the police seek to arm itself for the worst of possibilities.

The justification for these military units arose out of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Considering the violence drug gangs or terrorists could wreak on a city, police forces sought to arm themselves. However, this intention quickly swirled out of hand. Originally, only large cities like Los Angeles or New York City had S.W.A.T teams, now virtually every police department does. They are deployed for minor operations such as serving warrants. In the last two decades, there has been a precipitous increase in the use of these teams. From 3,000 requests a year in the 1980s, they are now called out about 40,000 times in a year.

But the overuse of S.W.A.T. teams is not all, police departments have begun acquiring all sorts of military surplus. A small town in Alaska was granted $202,000 to purchase surveillance cameras to track terrorist activity. Montgomery County in Texas purchased a weapons-capable drone, the Tampa police department operates an armored vehicle a tracked armored personnel carrier, and Fargo, North Dakota readied themselves with bomb detection robots. All told, the federal government has granted $30 to $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement.

There are severe consequences to this militarization which instills in the police a shoot first-ask questions later mindset. Glenn Reynolds notes this story:

“And, in a case that is now drawing national attention, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, who lived in a high-crime neighborhood of Atlanta, recently opened fire on police when they broke down her door while executing a drug warrant. They returned fire, killing her. It’s hard to believe any of this would have happened had the police taken a less aggressive approach in the first place.”

Far from this being the exception, the Cato Institute has a map that details the epidemic of botched police raids happening across the country that have resulted in the loss of innocent life.

Because police departments receive this equipment for virtually free, they continue to acquire them. Once these units are established, there is also a desire to use them even when they are not appropriate for a certain scenario. The New York Times explains:

“There is behind this, also, I think, a kind of status competition or imitation, that there is positive status in having a sort of ‘big department muscle,’ in smaller departments,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. “And then the problem is, if you have those kinds of specialized units, that you hunt for appropriate settings to use them and, in some of the smaller police departments, notions of the appropriate settings to use them are questionable.”

To restrain this militarization, police departments must have greater accountability to the public. Few small towns would truly consent to the purchase of bizarre military equipment. Further, the federal government needs to restrain itself from offering these items to state and local police departments. Only then can we expect to see a decrease in the use of this equipment and hopefully fewer lives lost.

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