The Police Aren’t the Military, but Many Want Us to Be
As the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfolded, many wondered why police departments needed Humvees, assault rifles, and military grade helmets, masks, and armor. I was asked by the editor-in-chief here at Outlaw to write an opinion piece on this since I have been a police officer for over eighteen years.
The department for which I work has no equipment from the government’s 1033 program that supplies police departments with military surplus gear. We are looking into the program, however, because we can get more than armored vehicles through it (which we don’t need). Departments can get boots, watches, filing cabinets, and even new laptop computers (more on that later) through the program.
Getting back to the “sexy” stuff that everyone wants to talk about, a lot of departments have military surplus vehicles, body armor, and weapons for a few reasons, but one of the main ones is that the American public wants us to have it.
A white Christian and his pal blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. America had never seen domestic terrorism on such a large scale (or with such intensive media coverage), but now the Average Joe and Jane worried that such a thing could happen in their town. They wanted their first responders to be able to handle such a threat. Training in mass casualty incidents became common.
The infamous North Hollywood bank robbery in 1997 showed America that police officers in one of the biggest cities in the nation were outgunned. Officers responded with .38 revolvers and 9mm handguns to two men with high-capacity magazine assault rifles and body armor that could stop shotgun rounds. There are well-known anecdotes of officers going into gun stores to grab weapons and ammunition off the racks so they could respond with equal firepower until SWAT could arrive. Citizens worried that officers in their town would be gunned down in the street by similar criminals and pushed for their local departments to have better weaponry. Many departments switched from twelve gauge shotguns to AR-15’s.
Then the 9/11 attacks came and Average Joe and Jane worried that a brown-skinned man with an accent was going to kidnap their child and blow up their church in the process. White Christian domestic terrorists were forgotten and replaced with boogeymen on the other side of the world that many believed would strike a small town next. I can tell you that I personally heard this school of thought in many police training sessions. People were wary of a large Muslim population in a town south of where I work (most of these Muslims worked at a well-known medical appliance factory). Were they harboring terrorists in their midst?
Within a week of the 9/11 attacks, my former police captain was sent to a local grocery store to confiscate all the Hostess Ding-Dongs because a woman opened one and discovered some white powder (flour) inside the packet. She thought it might be anthrax. The grocery store thought she might be right, so they called us to take the terrorist treats into custody. Two train tracks run through the middle of our town. Any train enthusiast taking photos of locomotives was the subject of phone calls by paranoid citizens who figured they were planning to derail a train.
People wanted us to be ready for this threat that never materialized. They wanted us to be ready to fight the Red Dawn-type invasion they thought was coming. They wanted us to be armed to the teeth and ready to blast foreigners off the face of the Earth. So, police departments started getting all this military stuff.
Granted, many police departments and city councils were staffed by other paranoid Americans back then (and many still are). So, when they discovered the 1033 program could get them the gear they needed to fight Al-Qaeda for free, they jumped at the chance. People were happy to see us with it. Many even hoped we’d use it against their neighbors for supposed crimes like drug manufacturing, maintaining a common nuisance, or even petty theft. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked / demanded that I kick in a door, whup ass, and take names because they “just know they’re doin’ drugs in there.” I usually remind them I can’t just do that because of this awesome thing we have called the Constitution. Many reply that it needs rewritten so I can.
Another reason departments get this gear is because it’s the only way they can afford any new gear. Department budgets have been slashed across the nation. Many police department jobs are among the lowest paid jobs in the majority of counties in the country. Property tax caps were put in place a couple years ago here in Indiana. That put a big dent in a lot of city budgets and many police departments took the hardest hit (usually because they have the highest budget). Many police chiefs and sheriffs looked to Uncle Sam to provide gear, because the city council sure wasn’t going to buy it.
The government program does not allow the military surplus to be sold to the general public. Anything not sold must be destroyed. Remember those laptop computers I mentioned earlier? A co-worker of mine knows a police chief who got new laptop computers for his officers (as well as watches and boots). The department had to pay for shipping or pick them up from the base, but was out no further cost. This department went to the base to pick up the laptops. They were happy to discover they were brand new and hadn’t even been removed from the boxes. Nonetheless, the man handing them out had to remove the unused and empty hard drives from the computer, demagnetize them even though they’d never been powered on, and then crush them. The chief then got new computers with no hard drives (which he had to replace at his own expense).
Think about that for a moment: The U.S. government had brand new laptop computers that they, for reasons unknown to me, cannot sell to civilians or even donate to a school. These computers, hard drives and all, would’ve been demagnetized and crushed if they couldn’t get them to a police department. Even though they were going to a police department, the government still has to crush their unused hard drives. Those boots the chief got (which were also brand new)? They would’ve been crushed as well, not donated to a homeless shelter. Those unclaimed armored Humvees? Crushed. These are our tax dollars being crushed, ladies and gentlemen. How do you feel about this program getting stuff to cops now?
There was a lot of talk about police departments not getting sufficient training to use the military equipment. This doesn’t surprise me because as much as equipment budgets have been slashed, training budgets have been slashed even more. I’ve been a police trainer for several years and I can tell you that the amount of yearly training for most police officers is severely lacking. You would be stunned to learn how little yearly training is mandated by the state of Indiana for officers. Training records are always the first things sought in police-involved lawsuits, yet time and money for training seems to shrink each year. Departments need money to train, but where do they find it? Many cities aren’t willing to cut back on paving streets and widening sidewalks so officers can get extra training hours. Plus, officers in training aren’t patrolling the streets, and people don’t like hearing that.
Getting back to police having military grade gear, a question you need to ask yourself if you don’t want your local agency to have it is the following: How would you outfit your local police agency if you were in charge? I’m guessing you’d want them to have the best gear possible. If you aren’t willing or able to push your local city council to buy them that equipment (and pay for the time to train with it), then the government’s military surplus program will probably be their source for it.
You want your officers to be outfitted with the best equipment they can get and to be trained to their maximum potential. Their lives and your life may depend on it.
Nik Havert is a writer, DJ at WSND 88.9FM University of Notre Dame, harmonica player, martial arts instructor, comic book publisher, crime fighter,music lover, cult movie enthusiast, and modern day Renaissance man. He hopes to shark cage dive sometime in the next few years and enjoys travel and good natural root beer. Visit his web site at http://www.picklepress.net.
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