Guest Opinion: Obama flips on militarized cops?
The images of police atop armored vehicles in American streets during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 and during the Michael Brown riots in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago, spawned calls to scale back police militarization. The White House took up the cause, but now it seems to be having second thoughts.
In May 2015, President Barack Obama announced the planned implementation of several recommendations of the Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group. These measures included significantly scaling back the Defense Department’s Excess Property Program, also known as the 1033 Program, under which local law enforcement agencies could acquire surplus equipment from the military.
The program had seen a number of questionable transfers of military equipment, such as the 61 M-16 rifles and three grenade launchers awarded to the Los Angeles Unified School District or the mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, known as an MRAP, that was given to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, which has just nine full-time officers and is located in one of the safest cities in the nation.
“We’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments,” President Obama said at an event where he unveiled the reforms.
Under the new directive, certain equipment, including weaponized aircraft, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, camouflage uniforms, grenade launchers and bayonets will no longer be provided under the program. Manned aircraft, drones, certain armored vehicles (including MRAPs), battering rams, riot gear, explosives and specialized firearms are still available, but only under heightened scrutiny and justification.
In the wake of attacks on police officers, such as in Dallas and Baton Rouge, however, the White House is reportedly reconsidering its stance on military equipment for local police. But any rollback of the policy would be a mistake.
Police should have the equipment necessary to defend themselves in the line of duty, but transforming them into an occupying military force is quite another matter.
“It’s hard to see a difference between the militarized and increasingly federalized police force we see in towns across America today and the force that (James) Madison had in mind when he said, ‘a standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be a safe companion to liberty,’” then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., declared during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in 2014.
Founding Fathers such as Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason opposed maintaining a standing army, especially during peacetime, because they rightly believed political leaders would be too tempted to make use of it when it was not necessary. Turning the local police into the military, similarly, will only escalate the frequency and intensity of the use of force, but this time the targets are our own citizens, not foreign enemies.
Inculcating in officers a sense that the public is the enemy in a never-ending “war” is not a recipe for engendering greater safety and harmony. It will only lead to more tragic conflicts between the police and members of the communities they serve.