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Stop militarization of local police

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Moderated by Rick Badie

Armored vehicles. Sniper rifles. Combat gear. Such military-style equipment was mobilized to quell unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and, in the process, fueled debate about what some call the militarization of law enforcement agencies nationwide. Today, a Georgia congressman writes about the need to curb and audit free military surplus police obtain via the federal government, while a law enforcement advocate says the equipment is necessary to serve and protect.

When police behave like an army

By Hank Johnson

The overwhelming militarized response of St. Louis-area police forces to protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager is an overdue wake-up call.

Images we saw coming out of Ferguson, Mo., were breathtaking. Americans saw firsthand what militarization of our police departments looks and feels like. With the streets of Ferguson looking like a war zone, police officers took on the look of soldiers clad in camouflage and riot gear as they aimed their assault weapons at peaceful demonstrators from the turret of an armored personnel carrier.

Since the 1990s, the Department of Defense has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police agencies under what’s called the 1033 Program. Any local law enforcement agency that wants military-grade equipment and weapons simply has to fill out a one-page form with a wish list of whatever surplus equipment is listed on a federal website. Once approved, a police department can acquire the equipment free of charge if picked up within 14 days.

These tools of war can be acquired without the knowledge or consent of the local governing authority, with its taxpayers ultimately responsible for maintenance, insurance and repairs of this expensive military equipment that a city or county may neither want nor need.

What we saw in Ferguson could happen in any city or town. Unless Americans want their main streets patrolled in ways that mirror a war zone, we should all be concerned.

While I applaud President Barack Obama for reviewing the 1033 Program in the wake of Ferguson, I’ve been calling for a review since March. I’m introducing bipartisan legislation to reform the program before our civilian police militarize any further.

The program lacks meaningful oversight and accountability. We need an honest debate on the type of surplus military-grade weaponry that is appropriate for transfer to our streets.

My legislation will ban the free transfer of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, other armored personnel carriers, armored drones, assault weapons greater than .50 caliber, silencers and certain aircraft. It will also ensure that the Defense Department undertakes an annual accounting of what’s been transferred, by whom and to whom, to prevent military items from being auctioned on eBay or sold to the highest bidder.

Ferguson is not alone in having a militarized police force. There are countless stories of police departments getting (and later selling) assault weapons, drones and other military-grade equipment ill-suited for America’s main streets.

The Columbia, S.C., Police Department, for example, received a free MRAP vehicle from the Pentagon that otherwise would have cost Columbia nearly $700,000 The city is responsible for all repairs and upkeep going forward.

Columbia is not alone. The Roanoke Rapids, N.C., Police Department acquired Humvees and MRAPs, proudly displaying them at a car show. Roanoke Rapids got them free from the Pentagon, as did localities across America, including Texas’s McLennan and Dallas counties; Idaho’s Boise and Nampa; and Indiana’s West Lafayette, Merrillville and Madison, among others.

Even here in DeKalb County, my guess is that citizens might be surprised to know that our local police force has an MRAP and more than 50 assault rifles from the program, according to The New York Times.

We recognize that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” But are MRAPs really needed in small-town America? Are improvised explosive devices, grenade launchers, mines, silencers and other war-typical attacks really happening in Roanoke Rapids or Doraville?

No.

It behooves us to press pause on the Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage and can acquire without proper local government oversight.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, is a member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees.

Michael Shank, associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, contributed to this article.

Surplus gear protects law enforcement officers

By Carlton Stallings

As president of the Georgia State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, I have one primary concern: the safety of our law enforcement officers. When our officers have the training and equipment they need to safely perform their duties, they do a better job of protecting the citizens and communities they serve. When they receive needed equipment at a fraction of the cost, the officers and taxpayers benefit.

Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, commonly known as the 1033 program, enables law enforcement agencies across the country to purchase surplus Department of Defense equipment, also known as “military-grade equipment,” at greatly reduced costs to support law enforcement activities in a variety of areas. For Georgians, changes to this program would be a mistake.

Some have raised the issue of accountability regarding purchased surplus equipment. I can assure you, no agency in Georgia has a problem complying with such a demand. When the issuing agency requests an audit, the door will be wide open. We have nothing to hide in law enforcement.The police are not the military, nor do they want to be. But when surplus military equipment becomes available and fills a void that will make law enforcement officers’ jobs safer, why would we not take advantage of it?

Law enforcement’s equipment needs are often affected by limited budgets, even to the point that the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police maintains a program called “Protecting the Protectors.” It provides ballistic vests to smaller agencies that can’t afford to purchase them.

One of the most common requisitions from military surplus equipment is the heavy-duty, four-wheel-drive vehicle. These vehicles are vital during inclement weather, such as last winter’s ice storms, and in operations in rough terrain across Georgia.

Law enforcement is an ever-changing profession with ever-changing threats. Officers need a variety of equipment to meet these threats and return home safely at the end of the day. We now live in a society where people carry assault rifles into schools and courthouses, intending to cause chaos and mass casualties.

In the past, law enforcement officers had only their sidearms and shotguns, which greatly limited their ability to respond to threats of this nature. Today, a variety of weapons — weapons to which criminals have long had access — are required to meet threats that officers encounter.

And since the standard police patrol car offers little protection, armored vehicles have become necessary to safely transport officers into high-threat areas. Without 1033, the cost to taxpayers for a vehicle that meets this requirement would be astronomical.

The nomenclature for surplus military equipment can be misleading. Recent reports speak of agencies obtaining grenade launchers. While the name is technically correct, law enforcement agencies neither possess nor have a need for grenades. These launchers are used for deploying tear gas in riot situations.

Too many times, individuals with little or no law enforcement experience want to sit back in the safety of their offices and decide the needs of brave men and women of law enforcement on the street.

I would hope wisdom will prevail, and before any changes to the 1033 program are made, law enforcement leadership is consulted and allowed to have input.

Carlton Stallings is president of the Georgia State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

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