By Nick Bowlin ’16
Over the past month, Americans have closely followed the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The widespread protests that followed the racially charged shooting served to expose a disturbing trend in American police departments. The problem is this: our police forces have become identical to our military. Images from the protests showed heavily armed paramilitary units threatening protestors and driving on city streets in assault vehicles. In short, they looked like an invading army. Citizens across the country were outraged at what they saw in Ferguson. One infamous photo shows an entire SWAT team with their guns trained on an unarmed protestor with her hands in the air. Reporters were harassed and detained without cause. This is a new and terrifying version of America and it must be confronted.
The militarization of America’s police forces is a relatively new phenomenon. After 9/11, President Bush formed the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS wanted to give local police forces the capability to withstand other terrorist attacks. If done correctly, this would be a good thing. Instead, Americans must now confront the fact that our police forces are using against us weaponry that was designed for warfare. In fact, one Iraqi war veteran named Rafael Noboa y Rivera wrote in a blog post that “the police in Ferguson have better armor and weaponry than my men and I did in the middle of a war. And Ferguson isn’t alone — police departments across the US are armed for war.”
Let me explain how the DHS gets weapons and equipment to the police. There are two primary processes. The first is called the Department of Defense Excess Property Program. This long bureaucratic title disguises a program funneling surplus military equipment to local police forces. The second method is via DHS grant programs. In this fiscal year alone, the Guardian Newspaper reports, “the DHS plans to award $1.6b in grant money for state, local, and tribal agencies.” This is an obscene amount of money. Even worse are the stunning lack of restrictions on how police are allowed to use this military equipment.
This lack of restrictions means that the police are now using this anti-terrorist equipment for normal police work. It is no coincidence that the number of SWAT team raids has skyrocketed in the past decade. SWAT teams now do mundane tasks such as delivering warrants, even to non-violent offenders. One infamous incident in Florida involved SWAT teams charging barbers for cutting hair without proper licensing.
In addition to the military equipment, the DHS also supplies police with military surveillance technology. This should scare Americans. It goes against every classically liberal principle on which our country was founded, ignoring ideals such as individual liberty and limited government. The DHS recently launched a program giving small surveillance drones to police departments. The government has claimed that these drones will be used only in critical situations. Personally, I don’t believe them. Their misuse of the DHS military equipment shows that police cannot resist exploiting new technology to its full potential. In addition, there is now something called “Stingray” technology, provided to the police by the Pentagon. This tool allows police departments to collect mass public cell phone data.
There is some hope. On September 9th, there was a Congressional hearing regarding the government’s role in police militarization. For once, there seems to be some bi-partisan agreement that this problem needs to be addressed. Also, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia, has drafted a bill to cut down on the DHS surplus weapons program. He plans to introduce the bill in September.
Still, is a massive problem. The United States, where every citizen is guaranteed certain fundamental liberties at birth, increasingly resembles an Orwellian police state. Before you dismiss this allusion as overdramatic, consider the Edward Snowden revelations about the NSA. We have seen community police departments drift away from their promise to protect and serve, and towards a nation where faceless paramilitaries squash protest and free speech. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” American citizens must realize that militarized police forces violate our essential liberties. Our free press, our right to assemble, and our privacy are threatened by the draconian nature of American police. Ferguson has brought this issue to the forefront.
The Congressional hearing is a start and President Obama has publicly questioned the need for weapons of war in the hands of police, but the solution to this problem requires more than talk. America’s police forces must be actively disarmed and forced to stop their unconstitutional surveillance. Otherwise, our essential liberties, which Franklin held in such high regard, will be forfeit.