Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma perhaps said it best.
“There is no role in for the federal government in local and state police forces in our country,” the Republican said, during a recent hearing, the “Oversight of Federal Programs for Equipping State and Local Law Enforcement,” of the full Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Interestingly, his comments were followed minutes later by a statement from his Democratic colleague Sen. Claire McCaskill.
“I am confident militarized [police] tactics are not consistent with the First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly,” she said, reminding how Ferguson, Missouri, streets were recently overwhelmed with camo-dressed police carrying military-grade weapons and riding atop an armored vehicle. And one more point the Missouri Democrat raised: Florida police departments, for example, maintain among their equipment stocks dozens of MRAPs, or mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles. But Florida’s National Guard?
None, she said.
Her statement alone is shocking enough. Why are police obtaining, storing, maintaining and using cast-off equipment from the military – but our state-run military forces are not? Good question.
The militarization of police has taken front and center because of the shooting death of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, 18, and the subsequent Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the shooting officer, Darren Wilson, and into the response of police to street protesters. And the fact that Republicans and Democrats seem equally outraged at the growing threat from military-outfitted police riding armored vehicles through the streets of America’s communities is heartening.
Nonpartisanship is a good thing, in this case, because it means the congressional talk may not be simply political talk. Action and reform could result.
But what’s not so heartening is that this issue is only coming to Capitol Hill and widespread national light now, after the white-officer-on-black-teen shooting in St. Louis.
What about a few months ago, when the toddler baby “Bou Bou” saw his face and chest half blown off when police, dressed in SWAT gear, stormed the Atlanta home where he was sleeping and tossed a flash bang grenade into his crib, all in pursuit of a drug suspect? He spent weeks in a medically induced coma and faces years of more hospital treatments – and for what? The drug suspect wasn’t even in the home at the time, but was later located at another site a short distance away.
Or how about a few years ago when 26-year-old former Marine Jose Guerena was killed in his home when a drug-sniffing SWAT team busted through his front door and riddled him full of bullets? Guerena thought his home was under attack and he rushed his wife and 4-year-old son into a closet, while he grabbed his rifle. Storming police saw him with a weapon and fired – 71 times, it seems. Again, it was all a mistake. Police found nothing illegal in the Guerena family home. Guerena’s family was awarded a settlement of $3.4 million in 2013 – about $2.4 million of which was paid by Pima County taxpayers – but police involved in the botched raid weren’t ever disciplined.
Civil rights groups have chronicled dozens of other such cases in recent years where SWAT-type police with an overzealous mindset have mistakenly injured or killed innocent Americans – mistakes that are most often chalked up as little more than “oops,” absent any repercussions to the offending officers.
As Coburn said: “I am brought constantly and frequently back to the position of our founders, not only their wisdom, but their vision” and the vision of police is to “protect and serve.” Among one Founding Father who definitely would have been alarmed at the trend toward police to take on a more militarized look, role and mindset was James Madison.
The pertinent quote, from Madison during a speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “A standing military with an overgrown executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.”
How is this ominous warning not true today?
We have a president who brags about the power of the pen and phone to bypass Congress, an attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, who practically conducts surveillance operations on the press – and taps into Associated Press and Fox News telephone and email correspondences – to find out the source of supposed information leaks, and a federal Environmental Protection Agency that wants to rewrite Clean Water Act rules that clamp down on private property rights even further, with or without congressional permission.
That’s just a drop in the bucket of executive overreach – of an “overgrown executive” branch Madison feared.
Now add in a nationwide shift in police departments so that officers dress like soldiers, train like soldiers and use gear like soldiers. The Pentagon’s 1033 program alone has awarded more than $4.3 billion of cast-off Department of Defense equipment to police stations around the nation since 1997 – and nearly half a billion in 2013 alone. Granted, some of that equipment is of the office-supply type. But the rest is armored vehicles, tactical weaponry, night vision goggles, body armor and Kevlar and the like.
Now send those officers into the streets, and by all appearance, they look like soldiers – full-time law enforcement agents who serve as a “standing military,” just like Madison warned.
Again, Coburn had a good point when he said, “I think we need to recenter where we are” with these police departments and the use of military equipment by civilian law enforcers.
Ditto. It’s high time to slow the tide of police purchases and free receipts of military gear, reassess what the equipment’s needed for, and restrict law enforcement’s use of their overzealous tactical responses to certain situations tied to terror – not simply serving drug warrants. Police shouldn’t have the power to ride MRAPs into our neighborhoods and through our suburban streets citing simply the need to keep themselves safe on the job. After all, a police officer’s first and foremost duty is to the public – to keep the innocent-until-proven-guilty American safe, and those who can’t keep those priorities straight have no business serving in the civilian law enforcement sector.