Allie Doten on the militarization of police in America.
Look around the typical American small town and you will see an ice cream shop, Town Hall, a hardware store, and in some cases, military tanks. It is becoming increasingly common for citizens of small towns in the United States to see heavily armed police officers with military-grade weapons on their streets. The Department of Defense’s 1033 program gives recycled military-grade equipment to local police departments. From 5.56-mm rifles to BearCat trucks and grenades, police departments have transformed into combat storage units. But is this equipment necessary on Main Street, America? Does a small town need a tank to feel safe? As issues of police brutality continue to take center stage in conversations of urban safety, questions like these arise. To understand the situation however one must understand the people working behind the machines.
Police officers are trained to have what is known as a “warrior mindset” a term coined by Dr. Michael Asken, psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police and author of a book of the same title. Considered by many to be critical to success in law enforcement and military situations, warrior mindset requires readiness and mental toughness for confrontation any time any place. This mindset is complicated by research by the University of Notre Dame that reports that by simply holding a gun, a person will perceive their environment differently and feel more threatened. They were also more likely to “see” a gun in a person’s hand if they too were holding one. The research went on to imply that guns increase paranoia in those that hold them.
The introduction of military style weaponry to an already battle-ready and increasingly paranoid police officer opens the door to dangerous situations. Their decision-making skills may be hindered by heightened feelings of anxiety and trigger-readiness. The acquisition of military style weapons raises concerns about possible increased motivation on the part of police officers and SWAT teams to use the machines they are given. Their impulse to protect and serve may overreach causing them to make sudden and irrational decisions that leading to needless harm and excessively dangerous situations. The militarization of police officers in the United States is blurring the line between fighting international terrorism and keeping community peace.
The 1033 program was initiated with good intentions: It gives retired military supplies including clothes and office supplies to local police force. The problem is the helicopters, grenade launchers, and tactical vehicles that come with these good intentions. To acquire these items, police chiefs or sheriffs fill out a simple form to apply for the program and another one page form to request the types and number of weapons they would like. There are no training requirements to obtain them, and without training, it is very possible that the police officers do not fully understand the extent to which they can cause damage.
The 1033 program and the weapons that it supplies were intended to combat the war on drugs in the United States, which was very prevalent when it was established in 1990. Today, however, the approval ratings for government responses to the war on drugs have hit an all time low. Despite this, the program continues to send military grade weapons to citizen police forces to use in “high risk” situations. The flaw in this rule is that whether or not a situation is considered “high risk” is entirely up to the officers in that position and can be interpreted in many different ways.
Police have deployed violent SWAT team raids on homes with children and elderly in them, even with little evidence of the presence of drugs or low level drug investigations. As the American Civil Liberties Union found, “of the cases [they] studied, in 36 percent of SWAT deployments for drug searches, and possibly in as many as 65 percent of such deployments, no contraband of any sort was found”. This suggests an overwhelming use of SWAT teams that is both excessive and unnecessary.
This overuse of SWAT teams could be caused, in part, by the part of the 1033 program that requires the police forces to return equipment if they did not use it within a year. This factor encourages police forces to use their weapons even if there is not a real threat so they do not have to return them. Because they are being pushed to use military style equipment, it is likely the cause of why the police have developed a more aggressive mentality. The warrior mindset that the police officers have taken on because of the program is displayed through avoidable brutality, aggression, and violence. This change in mentality of the police has led to an increase in needless injuries and deaths due to the heightened number of times SWAT teams have been deployed. The difference in mindset and caliber of weapons has contributed to United States police conducting up to 80,000 SWAT raids a year, opposed to about 3,000 a year before it was enacted.
Police requests for unnecessary weapons are, unfortunately, frequently approved. For example, a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs was recently requested and given to the Police of Watertown, Connecticut despite never having a land mine in their area. Because these weapons are rarely used for what they are intended for, the police instead employ them for less serious threats. These unreasonable tactics frequently cause undue injuries and sometimes death when the SWAT teams and police forces act excessively.
Since the 1033 program was put in place, there have been countless numbers of unnecessary police brutality.
Police officers are charged with keeping the peace and protecting and defending their community, however they have begun to treat United States citizens as enemies. The 1033 program is extreme and exorbitant and should not exist in the form it does today. It is unreasonable and indefensible for a police force to be highly militarized, as it seems to only cause avoidable harm. Police officers should act to serve and protect, not to harass and hurt. There is no dispute that in an ever-increasingly violent world, the police need to be ready. What happens though, when the police are ready before the violence? One hand on a trigger, waiting for something to happen.
Photo credit: Getty Images
This article originally appeared on Vanderbilt Political Review.