« Independent Oversight

Policy 13: Demilitarize Local Police Forces

During the last few decades local police forces have become increasingly militarized. Militarization has taken many forms including the use of military grade equipment. The dangers of distributing military grade weapons to local law enforcement was vividly exposed in the local police response to protestors in Ferguson after the murder of Michael Brown. Starting in 1997, the federal government began making excess military equipment available to local law enforcement agencies.

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Police agencies in all 50 states have requested military equipment from the Department of Defense that is cumulatively worth more than $727 million. Over 100 college and university police departments also have access to this military equipment as do more than 20 school districts. The distribution of excess military equipment by the Department of Defense to local police forces through the Law Enforcement Support Office — known as the 1033 program—has contributed to troubling use of that weaponry by police and contributes to the already existing over-militarization of police. Ultimately, an end to this dangerous practice is in the hands of the federal government. The Obama administration announced in May 2015 that they are banning some military-style assault gear from local police departments, but the list of items banned is small and there is still a long way to go.

Some states have attempted to curtail the influx of military equipment through state law. Such laws are important in encouraging police departments to consider non-combative methods of engaging with communities. Localities can also stop requesting equipment from the Department of Defense or put in place democratic checks on law enforcement’s ability to request military grade equipment.

Militarization of local police goes beyond the use of military equipment. It has been decades in the making and is manifested in the growing employment of military tactics in policing strategies and training as well the recruiting of former military personnel. The popularity of SWAT teams and there increasingly common deployment are another symptom of over-militarization.

In Practice

The issue of police militarization is not limited to the 1033 program. It is part of a larger trend of increasingly large and war-like police forces. There is a need to engage in a more substantive debate about the militarization of police, the prevalence of SWAT teams and the growing warlike orientation of law enforcement across the country. Curtailing the 1033 program has caught the attention of elected officials and advocates across the country and is a way of bringing attention to the larger issue of police militarization.

New Jersey is the first state to pass a law providing a democratic check on the distribution of federal military equipment. The new law requires local, democratic approval before law enforcement agencies can receive surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense. Before the passage of the new law New Jersey law enforcement agencies acquired nearly $33 million worth of military equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles. Under the new law, police departments must not only notify local governments of their intention to obtain used military gear, but also receive their explicit approval before doing so.