What happens when billions of dollars in military equipment are transferred to local police departments
Upon first glance, this policy seems like a win-win for all – police forces get useful DOD hand-me-downs along with more powerful, more lethal equipment with which to protect their localities during an era in which threats to public safety seem to be growing exponentially. At the same time, the military gets rid of excess or tenured equipment no longer relevant to their missions. And taxpayers see the equipment in which they invested repurposed, seemingly cutting down on government waste.
In some instances, that first glance may prove an accurate picture. A police force in Mississippi, for example, was able to acquire computers, life vests, marine radios and more through the program, while Maine’s Sanford Police Department was able to procure a printer, scanner and copy machine all-in-one, free of charge.
This benign equipment provides clear value to police forces. But what happens when equipment that was designed for war-fighting is transferred to domestic police departments?
A 2014 New York Times investigative report revealed that, since 2006, police departments had acquired more than 430 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles (MRAPs), 530 military aircraft and 93,760 machine guns. The average MRAP was originally produced for the DOD at a sticker price of roughly $1 million.
In the eyes of law-enforcement beneficiaries, these handouts effectively turned Uncle Sam into Santa Claus. Unfortunately for police forces and the communities they serve, Uncle Sam’s secondhand gifts often come with mixed terms.
First, this equipment isn’t truly free – and can lead to an increase in government waste. Police forces still need to pay for shipping and transportation costs, as well as general maintenance, after they’ve acquired the property. More often than not, armored vehicles sit unused, taking up critical storage space – after all, there are few prudent reasons why U.S. police forces would need protection from landmines. Places such as Livingston Countyand Howard County, in contrast, have decided the local parade or festival is reason enough to bring out a vehicle which, in some cases, was designed to use jet-engine fuel and only gets 5.8 miles to the gallon.
Meanwhile, other departments have used their new armored vehicles for purposes inappropriate for the police mission.
Ferguson, Missouri, presents the most cited case in point. When the St. Louis County police force rolled out its armored vehicles amid public outcry following the police shooting of Michael Brown, their vehicles did not serve to protect the public from violent protests. Rather, they served to intimidate and, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, actually increased tensions between the police and the community. While armored vehicles may serve an important purpose in exceptional cases, the majority of the time, this equipment is unsuitable for routine policing.
Camouflage was also crafted with a purpose contradictory to the police agenda. Camouflage – or “cammies,” in Marine Corps vernacular – have one essential purpose: to help the wearer blend in to his or her environment to avoid detection. This goal is critical in Iraq or Afghanistan, where service members fight amid rugged terrain in shades of tan, brown and green. But cammies have little value when used in an urban landscape of asphalt and concrete.
Moreover, the purpose of police uniforms has traditionally been the opposite of camouflaging them. Instead of helping officers blend in, police uniforms have served to clearly identify officers on the theory that a recognizable police presence would dissuade illegal activity and allow the public to more easily seek help in times of danger. Even today, “hot spots” policing – which seeks to reduce criminal activity by concentrating police presence in areas with higher levels of crime – is built on this premise. Recent research has provided evidence that this method is more effective at reducing crime than traditional policing. Military camouflage works against this aim by promoting misidentification and confusion among the public.
So why are police wearing military camouflage in the first place? The most obvious answer is that “free” uniforms are an attractive offer for many departments, but a more unsettling reason for this trend may be the “primal fear it instills in the public.”
In the past, lawmakers have specifically tried to avoid this kind of mission confusion. Following the conclusion of the Civil War and Union occupation of the South, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which made it illegal for the military to directly carry out local law enforcement missions. Though the law was part of a political compromise to bring the South back into the fold, lawmakers also crafted the Act based on their belief that localities could not heal if they felt occupied by the enemy. Many believe the same principle holds true todaywith communities of color, which may be unable to heal if their members feel occupied by a police presence that is failing to protect them. Camouflage police uniforms, therefore, only exacerbate existing tensions between these communities and law enforcement.
Assault rifles can also be problematic for policing. While they may be useful in cases such as mass shootings or other terrorist attacks, the utility of obtaining an additional assault rifle should be assessed prior to police acquisition and deployment on calls for service. Assault rifles are not all the same, and each has a specific impact on a police officer’s ability to do his job. The M-4, for example, was crafted for close-quarter combat and can fire approximately 800 rounds per minute with a maximum effective range of about five football fields (500 meters) without the use of a scope. The M-4’s high penetration power means that a single round could – and has – gone through multiple bodies and walls before its damage is complete.
On the battlefield, more wounded enemy combatants are how armies win wars. But in residential neighborhoods, unintended casualties are a cause for despair. Moreover, the M-4 is a two-handed weapon system, which physically restricts an officer’s ability to choose a less-lethal method of force. While a few extreme cases may require officers to carry assault rifles with a sustained rate of fire, high penetration power and accuracy up to half a mile, routine policing does not. This begs the question of whether local police forces should be procuring the tens of thousands of assault rifles they have today.
On the surface, granting billions of dollars of military-grade equipment that the military no longer needs to local police forces seems like a prudent policy. But, practically speaking, a significant portion of military equipment is extremely inappropriate for routine policing. Policymakers and local police departments should carefully consider what equipment is necessary to carry out the police mission in the face of rising public distrust of the law enforcement community.
Arthur Rizer is a DPhil student at the Centre for Criminology. Arthur is also the criminal justice policy director at the R Street Institute, a Washington D.C. based think tank and a former police officer and prosecutor (@arthurrizer). Emily Mooney is a justice policy associate at the R Street Institute (@emilymmooney).