State police officers dispersing a protest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Photo Credit: New York Times/Victor J. Blue
The progression of police militarization in the United States has heightened the antagonistic relationship between state and local law enforcement and many of the civilians they have sworn to protect. The National Defense Authorization Act originally passed in 1989 established a functional relationship between the Department of Defense (DoD) and law enforcement agencies to more comprehensively target drug-related security threats.[i] Military and police material cooperation has since been expanded to encompass an array of activities, including counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism.[ii] One of the most controversial provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act is the 1033 Program, through which state and local law enforcement agencies are able to augment their force capabilities with military-grade equipment. Unfortunately, what frequently correlates with the acquisition of military capabilities is a militaristic culture.[iii] This summer’s wave of protests against police brutality and racial discrimination has raised concerns about a police force equipped with an excessive arsenal and a history of disproportionate violence towards Black Americans. Discussions of law enforcement reform should consider the effects of 30 years of police militarization on institutions and practices.
The 1033 Program serves as a sort of bureaucratized consignment store where the DoD can send surplus military supplies to participating law enforcement agencies. The Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) oversees the program under the Defense Logistics Agency. State coordinators are responsible for program applications and acquisition requests. As of June 2020, more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies from 49 states are enrolled in the program.[iv] Such a large number of agencies are able to participate due to the massive surplus of military equipment left over from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[v] More than $7.4 billion worth of supplies has been distributed among state and local law enforcement agencies since 1990.[vi] The materials available are split into controlled and non-controlled property which are differentiated by purpose and acquisition logistics. Non-controlled property, also referred to as General Property, accounts for the majority of resources issued through the 1033 Program. It consists of non-combat items like office equipment, tools, first-aid kits, computers, furniture, and maintenance equipment. Controlled property available to police forces include assault rifles, bayonets, grenade launchers, personal weapons, night-vision equipment, armored vehicles, watercraft, and aircraft. The only cost to participating agencies is shipping.[vii]
Proponents of police militarization argue that access to this high-grade equipment provides a higher degree of safety for both law enforcement officers and civilians. The Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 exemplifies this: the Orlando County Sheriff’s Department and a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team used an armored vehicle and explosives to enter the building and apprehend the shooter.[viii] However, there have since been several studies on access to military gear and incidents of police violence, and they all show a more disturbing pattern. When controlling for other variables, counties who received the highest amount of military equipment through the 1033 Program recorded twice as many police killings than counties that did not receive any equipment.[ix] A report on Georgia law enforcement agencies discovered that participating police departments and sheriff offices who took in more than $1,000 in 1033 money, on average, had four times as many fatalities as non-participating agencies.[x] The data analysis supports comments made by interviewed police officers: law enforcement agencies with the capabilities of a military force begin to adopt a corresponding hostile attitude.[xi]
The negative consequences of police militarization have been made distinctly visible during the Black Lives Matters protests this summer. The protests, the focus of which have primarily been the disproportionate use of excessive force against Black Americans, have become a display of police brutality. Amnesty International recorded 125 incidents of police violence against protesters across 40 states and Washington, D.C. from May 25 – June 5, 2020 alone.[xii] Images of state and local law enforcement in high-grade tactical gear lined up in apparent opposition to civilian protesters pervaded the news cycle for months. The militarized culture of domestic law enforcement empowered by military equipment has continued to transform police from a protection force to one better suited for a battlefield. Civilians are at risk of being killed by the law enforcement that has sworn to preserve their safety. Individual security is actively being threatened by the changes in police capabilities resulting from the 1033 Program and other means of police militarization.
[iii] Brian Barrett, “The Pentagon’s Hand-Me-Downs Helped Militarize Police. Here’s How,” Wired, June 2, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/pentagon-hand-me-downs-militarize-police-1033-program/; Tom Nolan, “Militarization Has Created a Police Culture That Sees Protestors As ‘The Enemy,’” Business Insider, June 6, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/militarization-creates-a-police-culture-that-sees-protesters-as-enemy-2020-6.
[iv] “1033 Program FAQs,” Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services, https://www.dla.mil/DispositionServices/Offers/Reutilization/LawEnforcement/ProgramFAQs.aspx#q5.
[v] Chris Joyner and Nick Thieme, “Police Killings More Likely in Agencies that Get Military Gear, Data Shows,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 8, 2020, https://www.ajc.com/news/police-killings-more-likely-in-agencies-that-get-military-gear-data-shows/MBPQ2ZE3XFHR5NIO37BKONOCGI/.
[vii] “1033 Program FAQs,” Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services, https://www.dla.mil/DispositionServices/Offers/Reutilization/LawEnforcement/ProgramFAQs.aspx#q5.
[viii] Madeline Marshall, “Why America’s Police Look Like Soldiers,” Vox, June 25, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/6/25/21303538/american-police-soldiers-1033-program.
[ix] Niko Kommenda and Ashley Kirk, “Why Are Some US Police Forces Equipped Like Military Units?” The Guardian, June 5, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/05/why-are-some-us-police-forces-equipped-like-military-units.
[x] Chris Joyner and Nick Thieme, “Police Killings More Likely in Agencies that Get Military Gear, Data Shows,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 8, 2020, https://www.ajc.com/news/police-killings-more-likely-in-agencies-that-get-military-gear-data-shows/MBPQ2ZE3XFHR5NIO37BKONOCGI/.
[xi] Casey Delehanty, Jack Mewhirter, Ryan Welch, and Jason Wilks, “Militarization and Police Violence: The Case of the 1033 Program,” Research and Politics 4, no. 2, April 1, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1177/2053168017712885.
[xii] “USA: The World is Watching: Mass Violations by U.S. Police of Black Lives Matter Protesters’ Rights,” Amnesty International, August 4, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr51/2807/2020/en/.