As protests continue in the wake the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., a debate is emerging on whether the growing militarization of the nation's police is appropriate, much less warranted.
Locally, a friend who recently visited Scotland, England and Ireland, where the police traditionally haven't carried guns, noted:
In fact, there was a small item in one of the local papers about an inquiry into the number of Scottish police now carrying guns on routine patrol and how people were bothered by it, they didn't want to see their Americanization of their police.
A New York Times guest commentary on the M-16s,camouflage uniforms and armored tanks used by police in Ferguson, a town of 21,000 citizens, revealed:
Ferguson’s police force got equipped this way thanks to the Pentagon, and it’s happening all over the country. The Department of Defense provides military-grade weapons and equipment to local law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program, enacted by Congress in 1997 to expand the practice of dispensing extra military gear. Due to the defense industry’s bloated contracts, there is a huge surplus. To date, the Pentagon has donated military equipment worth more than $4 billion to local law enforcement agencies. And the giving goes on, to police forces in all 50 states in the union.
Whereas the Department of Defense hands over weapons directly, the Department of Homeland Security provides funding for arms. It has distributed more than $34 billion through “terrorism grants,” enabling local police departments to acquire such absurd items as a surveillance drone and an Army tank.
For a police department like Ferguson’s, the path to becoming a paramilitary force is a short one. After loading up with free military gear, it is no surprise that law enforcement agents want to use it. In fact, the 1033 program’s regulations require that the police use what they receive within one year.
In the absence of extreme violence or actual terrorist threat, what happens — as the American Civil Liberties Union has documented — is that the equipment and weapons are used by SWAT teams in routine situations, such as low-level drug raids or the execution of search warrants. As Ferguson shows, this militarizing of routine police work exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of disorder. This, in turn, appears to justify a militarized police response, and so the cycle continues.
Kauai attorney Dan Hempey, who has been speaking out against the growing militarization of police for years, sent me a link to the ACLU report. It found that these military arsenals are used primarily in the “War on Drugs,” and disproportionately among people of color.
Among its other findings:
SWAT raids are undoubtedly violent events: numerous (often 20 or more) officers armed with assault rifles and grenades approach a home, break down doors and windows (often causing property damage), and scream for the people inside to get on the floor (often pointing their guns at them). During the course of this investigation, the ACLU determined that SWAT deployments often and unnecessarily entailed the use of violent tactics and equipment, including Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), and that the use of these tactics and equipment often increased the risk of property damage and bodily harm.
Of the incidents studied in which SWAT was deployed to search for drugs in a person’s home, the SWAT teams either forced or probably forced entry into a person’s home using a battering ram or other breaching device 65 percent of the time. In some instances, the use of violent tactics and equipment caused property damage, injury, and/or death.
So how is this playing out on Kauai, aside from the SWAT team shooting death of Dickie Louis on his rooftop, which prompted a lawsuit against the county?
I contacted Police Chief Darryl Perry, who is running for County Council, to ask what sorts of things the department had purchased with the Homeland Security funding. His reply:
Incident Command Vehicle for critical incidents like hurricanes, and tsunamis, to long term search and rescue situations; new P25 compliant portable radios, mobile computers for our patrol officers, Radiological-Biological-Chemical protective gear, body armor (bullet resistant vests), and our new Armored Rescue Vehicle for use in hostage situations involving an armed suspect. The ARV will also be deployed for Active Shooter situations which I pray won't ever happen here on Kauai.
We (KPD) also contributed a portion of our allotment so that KFD [Kauai Fire Department] could get the helicopter which is used frequently to rescue our visitors and locals.
Though much of it sounds warm and friendly — disaster response, search-and-rescue — it can be used for much less benign purposes at KPD's discretion. As the ACLU noted:
Local police departments should develop their own internal policies calling for appropriate restraints on the use of SWAT and should avoid all training programs that encourage a “warrior” mindset.
Finally, the public has a right to know how law enforcement agencies are policing its communities and spending its tax dollars. The militarization of American policing has occurred with almost no oversight, and it is time to shine a bright light on the policies, practices, and weaponry that have turned too many of our neighborhoods into war zones.
Problem is, it's not that easy to obtain the info.
In March 2012, when KPD was buying Tasers, I made a public records request for a copy of the department's policies regarding Use of Force and Electronic Control Devices (ECD). The document I received was heavily redacted, prompting me to file an appeal with the Office of Information Purposes.
Though it took nearly two years for my request to work its way through the system, I did receive another copy of the document, with fewer redactions that the original. Some of it is protected under a court ruling that determined details of police policies that might "benefit those attempting to violate the law and avoid detection" should not be released.
Still, information is missing on when an ECD should not be used, other than it should not be used to punish an individual, or if a person is “displaying resistance not rising to the level of an immediate threat to the officer(s) or another person.” Nor should it be used against a person by more than one officer at the same time, "unless it's justified and articulated" in various report forms.
No information is included on when or how KPD should use its Homeland Security gear.
As the nation, and Congress, review the trend of sending military gear to small town police departments, It seems time for the Kauai community to have a discussion on what level of militarization and force is appropriate for the local cops before we have an incident, or an accident, another death and the inevitable lawsuit.