To restore community trust, we must demilitarize our police
Our concerns regarding the provision of military grade equipment to local police and the weaponizing of the interactions between law enforcement and the community were presented in a letter to the House and the Senate in 2017 when the Trump administration revoked the protections of the program previously imposed under President Barack Obama’s 2015 Executive Order 13688. A mapping of civil unrest in the United States shows that since that time, unrest has increased significantly in response to political division, concerns of social justice and reactions to police-involved shootings. More troubling is the higher rate at which Black men are likely to be met with excessive force during periods of unrest and they have, by far, the highest rate of being killed in an interaction with law enforcement.
Communities of color have long been on the receiving end of the—often fatal—consequences of arming our state and local police with surplus military equipment. The constitutional right of citizens to gather peaceably against perceived injustice is regularly met with a police response so disproportionate to the cause that even peaceful protests have the potential to raise tensions to a powder keg level that jeopardizes the safety of all involved. The heightened perception of violence only encourages both parties to increasingly arm themselves in defense.
While the 1033 program has provided some police departments with much needed equipment that they could not otherwise afford, research indicates that the program erodes public trust and denigrates the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color since these militarized tactics are disproportionately deployed in already overpoliced, minority communities. Another study found that police departments who received military surplus equipment from the 1033 program experienced higher levels of civilian killings, canine killings and violence against police officers.
The American Bar Association, citing a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, expresses concern that the allocation of these resources to various task forces across the country has also frequently been implicated in officer corruption, misconduct, civil rights violations and rampant racial disparities in enforcement. Thus, human rights groups and criminal justice reform advocates are urging Congress to dismantle the program and demilitarize the police.
The provision and use of unrestricted access to military grade equipment with limited oversight and accountability exacerbates existing conflict and division between communities of color and local law enforcement departments. Therefore, it is imperative that our elected leaders repeal or, at least, curtail “the 1033 program.” Such action is necessary to decrease violence, restore public safety, repair police-community partnerships and protect our most basic civil rights in our interactions with law enforcement.
In response to the need to protect communities while providing law enforcement departments with critical resources, Rep. Hank Johnson (Ga.-04) recently re-introduced the bipartisan Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2021 that would place restrictions and transparency measures on the “1033 program.” The act prevents the transfer of inappropriate military grade equipment to local police departments, provides strict accounting procedures, and adds tracking mechanisms to prevent the regifting and resale of surplus materials. Instead of eliminating the program, the proposed legislation offers a reasonable compromise, garnering the support of more than 90 non-governmental organizations, including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
It is time to end the war between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, especially our communities of color. Despite its utility in offering police departments the resources they need to protect themselves and the communities they serve, the weaponizing of local and state police departments with military surplus equipment from the 1033 program has increasingly led to violence against citizens, particularly people of color, and the police officers tasked with protecting them. A crucial first step in reducing this violence and restoring the trust between the police and the community involves the adoption of legislation to demilitarize America’s state and local law enforcement departments. This much needed reform is in the best interests of police and citizens alike, while providing a path for restoring the police-community partnerships that are essential to reducing crime in the United States.