August 25, 2014 – In the aftermath of the first night of protests and the aggressive militarized police response in Ferguson, Mo., several pundits called for federal action. They argued that the excessive force utilized by the police, and the accompanying trampling of civil liberties proved that Americans cannot trust state governments to protect their rights and need the strong hand of federal intervention.
In essence, these pundits viewed the militarized police response in Ferguson as an indictment of the concept of state sovereignty and begged for the U.S. Calvary to ride in and save the day.
This is a little like suggesting that American Indians should have called the U.S. Cavalry.
The U.S. Cavalry is the problem.
In fact, Washington D.C. can largely take credit for creating the aggressive paramilitary response America witnessed in Ferguson.
In the 1980s, the federal government began arming, funding and training local police forces, turning peace officers into soldiers to fight in its unconstitutional “War on Drugs.” The militarization went into hyper-drive after 9/11 when a second front opened up – the “War on Terror.”
Through the federal 1033 Program, local police departments procure military grade weapons, including automatic assault rifles, body armor and mine resistant armored vehicles – essentially unarmed tanks. Police departments can even get their hands on military helicopters.
Police departments also outfit their officers like soldiers through Homeland Security grants. According to ProPublica,] “In 1994, the Justice Department and the Pentagon funded a five-year program to adapt military security and surveillance technology for local police departments that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”
Finally, local police use the lucrative federal asset forfeiture program to fund militarization. State and local law enforcement get to keep 80 percent of the value of assets seized from accused drug dealers. Even those innocent of actual drug crimes can find themselves stripped of cash and property. Of course, this incentivizes police to focus on “the War on Drugs” while scaling back on the investigation of other crimes.
Police departments involved in the Ferguson response benefited from all of these federal programs. For instance, according to an October 2011 story by Christine Byars in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis County Police bought more than 156 military grade rifles with asset forfeiture money. And according to CNN, two of the armored vehicles you’ve seen patrolling the streets of Ferguson were purchased with federal funds.
Make no mistake, the feds not only enable the militarization of local police, they desire it and encourage it.
Defense Department spokesman John Kirby recently bristled at the notion that the federal government was “militarizing” police departments, calling the federal program to pawn off military surplus to state and local law enforcement “useful” and insisting that it “serves as purpose.”
Indeed it does. The federal government needs troops to fight its domestic “wars” on drugs and terror. Local police fill that role nicely.
The ACLU recently released a report chronicling the militarization of local law enforcement. It documents the rapid increase SWAT team deployment utilizing paramilitary tactics. According to the ACLU, in nearly 80 percent of the cases, SWAT teams were rolled out for nothing more than serving warrants, usually relating to drug crimes.
With the rise of these military style tactics we see increasing numbers of innocent people getting hurt and a growing number of excessive force cases. Not long ago, a baby was severely injured by a flash-bang grenade during one of these raids. Sadder still, one source estimates some 500 people ever year die at the hands of police officers – more than one every day.
In other words, Ferguson was not an anomaly. It represents the new norm in policing. And it should not surprise us. When you dress cops up like soldiers, arm them like soldiers and tell them they are at war, they will act like soldiers. As the saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
We’ve turned “protect and serve” into “command and control.”
No, the federal government cannot ride to the rescue. This problem calls for a state solution, and that solution is simple: stop letting the federal government turn your state and local police forces into a standing army.
State governments don’t have to allow it. They should take steps to stop it now.