Militarization of Police: Cost Savings or Slippery Slope?
By: Stephanie Sanok Kostro
On August 9, police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed teenager who police maintain physically assaulted a law enforcement officer. This use of force ignited protests, to which police—dressed in camouflage, carrying M-4 rifles, and driving armored vehicles—responded with tear gas.
In addition to highlighting racial tensions, these events have spurred public discourse regarding police use of federally provided tactical equipment. On August 24, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a White House review of federal programs that arm local police forces with military-style equipment. Congress has already held hearings, in which members noted that “militarizing police tactics [is] not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly” and stated that legislation on this topic is pending.
Several federal programs facilitate equipment transfers to law enforcement agencies. Congress and the media have repeatedly cited the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) “1033 Program,” which allows federal and state agencies to acquire excess DoD property for a range of missions, including counterdrug and counterterrorism purposes. This property can include tactical items like armored vehicles, rifles, and ammunition, as well as office furniture and computer equipment. Other programs focus on purchase of spare parts, night vision equipment, and other items for counterterrorism and criminal justice activities. In total, since 1997, law enforcement agencies have reportedly received over $5 billion in equipment through the 1033 Program, and these programs have been growing: in 2013 alone, transfers under the 1033 Program totaled about $450 million.
One question raised by Ferguson relates to requirements and accountability. During a recent hearing, senators criticized a lack of coordination and oversight that could have led to militarization of police forces. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), in particular, stated that the federal government has provided equipment to law enforcement agencies “seemingly without regard to need or size of the agency that has received them.”
Since March of this year—months before the Ferguson event—a CSIS study team has been reviewing the DoD programs in question. It appears the programs do support law enforcement in a range of operations (e.g., hostage, active shooter, bomb disposal situations) by using equipment already bought using taxpayer funds. As the White House review moves forward, it should consider effectiveness and efficiency, as well as the potential shortcomings of these programs.