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Militarization of police departments calls for scrutiny

Michael ColemanCompared to the other big news of our era, the story didn’t get much attention – just a short article inside the A section of this newspaper and mostly minor treatment by other media outlets across the country.

But the Trump administration’s decision to reopen a pipeline that funnels war-fighting weapons including tanks, grenade launchers and machine guns to U.S. police departments deserves closer scrutiny.

A week before Labor Day, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police that he was canceling former President Obama’s ban on the distribution of high-powered weaponry to local police departments, saying Obama “went too far.” Sessions said the Trump administration would resurrect the 1033 program that has flooded U.S. law enforcement agencies – including Albuquerque’s – with billions of dollars of fearsome gear from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sessions’ decision sparked criticism from civil rights and police watchdog groups, who contend the weaponry is meant for the battlefield, not U.S. cities and towns. Critics have long argued the heavy weaponry fuels an “us-against-them” mentality among the police and the citizens they serve, especially in minority communities.

“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Sessions countered in making the announcement, while assuring police they would “get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal.”

Few want to deny police equipment to do their jobs safely, but under President Trump it seems “the new normal” is endorsing an aggressive – potentially even abusive – form of law enforcement. After all, Trump, who campaigned on law and order, seemed to condone at least a degree of police brutality in July when he told an audience of police officers “please don’t be too nice” to “thugs” when arresting them and putting them into squad cars. For example, instead of protecting the suspects’ head from the metal door frame, “you can take the hand away, OK?” the president said, to significant applause.

Last month, the president seemed to disregard the rule of law himself when he pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose deputies routinely violated Hispanics’ civil rights with racial profiling. The practice led to a criminal contempt conviction of Arpaio after he ignored a court order to stop. Now, Trump and his attorney general want to return to a practice of arming America’s police officers to the teeth at a time when police and the communities they serve need more trust, not less.

Regular Journal readers may recall a series I wrote in 2014 titled “Mission Creep” that documented the explosive growth of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with an in-depth section on the department’s role in militarizing police departments. In that piece, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge assailed the regular use of battlefield gear such as Humvees by cops, calling it “ridiculous.”

Four months after the Journal published the series, police in Ferguson, Mo., responded to protests of the controversial killing of Michael Brown with tanks, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. The place erupted in violent riots. Soon after, Obama issued his executive order canceling the 1033 program.

“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said at the time. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”

Again, most don’t begrudge police officers the weapons and other equipment they need to keep themselves and other citizens safe. In a high-crime city like Albuquerque, it may seem at times that violent criminals are winning the battle against civil society. Albuquerque Police Department Chief Gorden Eden didn’t respond to a request for comment for this column, but it seems to me that while cops should be able to protect themselves and others, there should also be a degree of restraint in the types of equipment that is used. Some U.S. police departments have posted recruitment videos that celebrate their weaponry, while others flaunt their militarized might in public.

After Sessions’ announcement, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian-leaning Republican, offered a sensible compromise. His “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” would bar the transfer of military equipment deemed “offensive” such as weapons, but allow equipment used for “defensive” purposes, such as helmets or body armor.

It’s a proposal that I hope gets a second look in Congress, especially since Sessions’ announcement last month didn’t’ receive enough attention in the first place.

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