By Elizabeth R. Beavers and Maggie O’Donnell It just got more difficult for police to arm themselves like soldiers. Recently, President Barack Obama announced a plan to de-militarize law enforcement with an executive order curtailing the federal programs that provide weapons of war to local police. This was a surprisingly bold announcement, given that national consensus post-Ferguson seems to be that the solution to an increasingly militarized police force is more training, or body-worn cameras. The Obama administration ignored that consensus by issuing this executive order. And it was exactly the right thing to do.
Put simply, the national consensus following the violence in Ferguson, Mo., has been wrong. It has only been nine months since Americans watched in horror while police responded to protests in Ferguson with tank-like vehicles, camouflage and machine guns. In that short period of time, more and more Fergusons have arisen as instances of police brutality in New York, South Carolina, Baltimore and elsewhere. The stunning sight of police with war weapons and the accompanying misconduct emerged as a debate the nation could not afford to ignore. Yet lawmakers and those in power to make actual changes have focused on everything but the real issue.
There have been proposals to put in place new training standards, essentially federally mandating that U.S. officers be trained to use their weapons of war. There have been calls to form task forces to examine providing weapons of war to domestic law enforcement. There have been efforts to conduct studies of the effects of law enforcement using weapons of war. There has been a popular idea to equip police with body-worn cameras to capture their use of weapons of war. But by now it should be obvious what’s missing in these discussions — an effort to simply stop providing police those weapons of war altogether.
This is the right approach, and it has been neglected by congressional leadership for too long. A growing number of bipartisan legislators have made valiant efforts to address the real issue, which is that the federal government directly arms cops like soldiers. Through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which gifts free surplus war weaponry to police, and billions of dollars in grant money from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, U.S. policy has poured militarism into the criminal justice system. Yet legislative attempts to stop these practices have been met with obstruction from congressional leadership. It defies logic that any serious effort to de-militarize police would not include a hard re-set of these programs, which are the source of that militarization.
This new administrative policy is a validation to the lawmakers and activists who have been seeking to fix the real problem. By placing stringent limitations — and in some instances a complete ban — on the transfer and grant-funded purchasing of military-style equipment, the administration’s plan nearly mirrors the consistent cries and recommendations for serious reform. This policy is intended to shift the perception of police from being “an occupying force” to “a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” as the president suggested on Monday.
This plan demonstrates that the calls for reform activists have voiced in the wake of tragedies such as Ferguson are neither too radical nor comprehensive, but rather what is required if there is to be serious reform. Clearly, the administration has full confidence that both the Department of Defense and law enforcement can handle these changes and that security will not be compromised. In fact, by barring weapons “made for the battlefield” from the streets of America, this plan makes communities and officers safer.
To be clear, the administration’s bold action does not let Congress off the hook. To the contrary, it is now more important than ever that Congress pass legislation to codify these changes or even take them further. The next administration could just as easily reverse this policy as this one put it into place. That would be unacceptable, because we have learned far too much in the last year to move backward. Without real efforts to de-militarize police, there will almost certainly be more Fergusons.
Of course, simply ending these federal policies won’t heal policing and won’t fully address the woes that plague the modern criminal justice infrastructure. The problems go beyond hardware, into mindsets and attitudes. But these issues are inextricably linked and cannot be solved in isolation. The obvious effect that such heavy weaponry has had on the mentality of law enforcement cannot be ignored, and addressing that arms stockpile is the first necessary step in a long process of reformation. Congress is demonstrably out of touch on this issue and it is essential that they quickly catch up to the needs of the public. It is time to start confronting the real issue, and stop militarizing law enforcement.
Elizabeth R. Beavers is the legislative associate on militarism and civil liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Maggie O’Donnell is a program assistant at the Friends Committee.
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