As riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of an 18-year-old black man whose “good reputation” has slowly become unsurprisingly tattered, the following text message chimed its way to my cell phone: “What’s with the MARPAT?” The question was rhetorical, and there was no need for explanation. As police descended on protestors clad in riot gear, their appearance was decidedly military. OD green shirts and, yes, MARPAT camo pants made them look less like members of local law enforcement and more like the Marines had come to town. These images only served to fan the flames of the recently ramped-up media-hyped cries of our local LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officer) militarization. Are our nation’s local law enforcement (LE) agencies becoming militarized? The answer is two-fold: yes and no.
One of the weapons in the media’s militarization arsenal is, of course, weapons. But not just any weapons; these weapons are being obtained by your local police department from the military, courtesy of the Department of Defense 1033 Program. 1033 allows for the sale of the military’s surplus equipment to local police departments, and the media frenzy would have the public believing the list is clogged with such items as Spectre gunships and M2 machine guns. Reality is something different.
On the list of more-than-10,000-units-sold are such incredibly terrifying items as building panels (10,000), fence posts (17,707), socket-head screw caps (43,828) and the amusingly-named men’s drawers (10,980, and, really, who outside a Civil War reenactment calls underwear “drawers”?). There are hundreds of thousands of more innocuous items than there are weapons, although mags do top the list at 139,366 – but there’s no sign as to whether those are rifle or pistol mags. And, yes, there have been 44 MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) distributed nationwide as well as 61,548 rifles chambered in either 5.56 NATO or 7.62x39mm. But does the distribution of a rifle in a caliber available to the civilian population equal a military presence? The media thinks it does.
Some of the rifles being obtained by PD’s are fully automatic, which distinguishes them from the semi-automatic restrictions placed on the public. Many departments claim to be converting the rifles to semi-auto, and many probably will do just that. Here we could easily delve into a topic guaranteed to cause explosive controversy: full-auto versus semi-auto and why the public should or should not have it. But regardless of how many rounds can be fired with a single squeeze of the trigger, there is something no one seems to be considering: how long has your local PD had a full-auto weapon?
The DoD’s 1033 Program was enacted in 1997, but it’s actually been around since 1990 under section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990. So did police have fully automatic rifles prior to 1990, or is the DoD’s program responsible? Although there have been gaps in LE carrying fully automatic rifles as a result of laws, the biggest of which was Roosevelt’s 1934 National Firearm’s Act, they have had possession of them long before the DoD program’s 1990 beginnings. Hard experience proved the usefulness of fully automatic weapons, such as the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army siege in Los Angeles, California. SWAT was called in, and they were woefully out-gunned; the result was both body armor and automatic weapons being issued. The Watts Riots of the 1960’s also proved the need for greater police-issued firepower. Multiple LEO’s confirm the long-time issue of fully automatic weapons, and their rifles didn’t all come from the military, either; many were purchased brand new from the manufacturer – and well before the DoD got involved.
If your local PD were to obtain real military-grade firepower, it would not be readily-available 5.56 NATO-chambered M16 rifles where the one big distinction is the full-auto option. Those are not only not new to LE, they’re available in semi-auto form to the general public – a reality that will undoubtedly upset someone out there. And, in fact, the military has repeatedly upgraded from the original 5.56 NATO M16, and more than one of its successors is missing something: the full-auto switch. Instead, they have a three-burst selector, for reasons which would take far too long to get into here. Which means – that’s right – not every rifle obtained by LE from the military is full-auto.
True hand-held firepower, from a military perspective, would include such weapons as the .50 cal M2 heavy machine gun, fondly known as “Ma Deuce” or the new-in-2014 Heckler-and-Koch-designed XM25 Individual Airburst Weapons System, “The Punisher,” which fires next-gen 25mm grenades up to 500 meters – accurately (or, for fun, the AA12 Atchison Assault Shotgun, which fires five 12-gauge shells per second and has a recoil only 10% that of your average 12-gauge). There are simply too many military weapons to list, and the overwhelming majority are not being handed over to stateside LE. And as for the MRAPs, while it is true one might wonder why the police need a vehicle designed to withstand land mines and IED’s, they also aren’t exactly shocking. After all, LE has been using armored vehicles such as the Lenco Bearcat for some time to protect officers during SWAT deployments. And as Georgia’s Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece pointed out, “We don’t have any mines here, but we use it as a SWAT vehicle. It saves us from ever having to buy one. We don’t have $250,000, $300,000, $400,000.” (Reece’s department obtained an MRAP with just 2 miles on it for free, and it is valued at $733,000.) So although there are many caustically – and sarcastically – musing as to the necessity of the heavier-duty MRAP, is it really a bad thing to offer protection to those who risk their lives to protect and serve?
The bottom line is the supposed militarization of the police has little to do with the surplus items they’re obtaining from the military, which covers the “no” side of the opening question’s answer. Were they rolling down the street in Abrams tanks and opening fire from gunships, that would be a different story, but, much to the probable disappointment of some in the media, they are not. The problem, at least right now, is not the equipment; it’s the tactics.
When the Tsarnev brothers bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon, the hunt was on. And when, four days later, they engaged police, the nation watched as Boston employed tactics more typically associated with jack-booted thugs. If that seems a harsh correlation to draw, consider the following. In the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnev, Watertown residents were both flat-out ordered and literally dragged forcibly from their homes while police performed warrantless searches of their homes. LEO’s pointed their weapons at citizens watching the goings-on from the windows of their homes – where they were confined – and also brandished weapons in situations such as the one where a bathrobe-clad woman attempted to check on her next-door neighbor, only to be roughly ordered back inside by armed men.
In my hometown of Seattle, in 1999, there were the infamous WTO protests-turned-riots, and after the brute force exercised by the Seattle PD, their own chief, Norm Stamper, was so disgusted he retired. Today he calls his presiding over the tear-gas-and-pepper-spray heavy tactics “the worst decision of [his] 34-year career.” Stamper also has something to say about Ferguson, and he doesn’t mince words, calling it “a huge mistake.”
In Ferguson, behavior was repeated that has been seen in the past but seems to be occurring with greater frequency. LEO’s aimed their rifles at individual, lone citizens whose arms were raised and at the drivers of passing cars, launched tear gas in a seemingly haphazard fashion, including at members of the media on the fringes, and acted with more aggression than often seen in a war zone, according to a number of Iraq and Afghanistan combat vets. It is, quite simply, a tactical travesty, and it has nothing to do with their secondhand military weapons. It also doesn’t technically have to do with their MARPAT-wear, although there is truth that what you wear matters, not only visually, but mentally.
The problem here is not weaponry; it is the tactics behind them. Not every LEO in Ferguson was heavy-handed or pointed their rifles at random, breaking the cardinal rule of not pointing your weapon at anything you aren’t willing to destroy. And though the excuse has been given of rubber bullets, not all were. In addition, rubber bullets are not harmless: they can cause bone fractures, internal injuries, permanent deformity, and death. Tear gas and OC spray can also cause permanent blindness and death, and LE sometimes uses both far too freely.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper believes there is a better way to handle protestors and riots, and he isn’t the only one. Floridian and community activist Reverend Glenn Dames said he’d never had issue with his local PD’s tactics, but said of Ferguson, “When you have ongoing conversations with community leaders, that is preventable maintenance. As opposed to right now…Ferguson is changing their motor. Their motor is completely fallen off and it’s costing them a whole lot.” Army vet and former State Department security officer Kyle Dykstra said that although he and his men had been in some “pretty bad areas of Afghanistan” they “didn’t wear that much gear.” And SWAT officer Scriven King – not from Ferguson – who also happens to be a USAF law enforcement vet, talked about the lack of leadership and mismanagement, adding “Officers were calling the protestors ‘animals.’ I can’t imagine a military unit would do that in any scenario.” Opinions are flying from every corner, and there is a theme: something’s got to give. Something’s going to give.
There is a joke in the firearms community: guns don’t kill people, people with mustaches kill people. Point being, an inanimate object – such as military weapons – are not responsible for the behavior of the human beings behind them. And while suiting up in MARPAT and serious gear may influence one’s mindset, it does not actually cause purposefully intimidating actions. Blame for ham-handed, perilously irresponsible tactics must rest on the shoulders of those who carry them out. The DoD 1033 program is not responsible for the so-called militarization of our nation’s police force. It is the entitled, power-hungry mindset of a certain part of the population that is to blame – on both sides, mind you – and finding a solution to that is another story altogether.
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