By arming local police departments with military grade equipment, domestic policing has come to resemble a combat operation with citizens as the enemy.
By Rania Khalek for Alternet, November 22, 2011
On Friday, November 18, a group of UC Davis students staged a sit-in to protect their Occupy encampment from destruction by a horde of riot police. Seated on the ground, the students defensively ducked as Lt. John Pike approached them. They were right to do so: Pike aimed a riot-extinguisher at them, showering the crowd of unarmed students with pepper spray as calmly as if he were watering his garden. A group of officers then proceeded to break up the crowd with batons and arrest them. The video of the incident has since gone viral.
The counterinsurgency-like tactics used to subdue unarmed, peaceful demonstrators at Occupy encampments around the country have left people shocked and appalled at the grotesque treatment of protesters as if they were violent enemy combatants. This dynamic was captured best by a photo published in the News Observer showing machine-gun toting police officers dressed in combat attire, pointing their weapons at unarmed Occupy Chapel Hill demonstrators.
The barrier between military and civilian law enforcement was drawn long ago for good reason. Traditionally, the role of the civilian police force is to maintain the peace and safety of the community while upholding the Constitution. In stark contrast, the military soldier is an agent of war, trained to kill the enemy. But that barrier has been broken down by decades of the relentless war on drugs, and more recently the war on terror. Today civilian law enforcement agencies have access to military-grade equipment designed for heavy combat, essentially blurring the line between soldier and police officer.
When local police departments are armed with military grade equipment, the soldier’s mentality is not far behind. Domestic policing has come to resemble a string of combat operations in a scene that repeats itself every time an Occupy encampment is raided, which raises the question: exactly what type of policing equipment is in the arsenal of law enforcement agencies in America?
The average patrol officer’s belt holds a handgun, pepper spray canister, Taser, handcuffs and baton or nightstick. Multiply that by several hundred, which is the minimum number of police officers deployed to raid a large Occupy encampment, and the amount of firepower is startling. But it doesn’t stop there. Police departments are equipped with much more than is found on the standard on-duty police belt.
Prior to the war on terror, local police departments were on a clear path toward acquiring military weaponry, thanks to several congressional and presidential moves throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which were rooted in the war on drugs. Although the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the government from using the military for domestic law enforcement, the tough stance of the drug war led to the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act of 1981. The act directed the military to give local, state and federal law enforcement access to military equipment, research and training for use in the drug war, basically authorizing cooperation between civilian police and the military.
The 1980s saw a series of additional congressional and presidential maneuvers that blurred the line between soldier and police officer, leading to a memorandum of understanding in 1994 between the US Department of Justice and Department of Defense. The agreement authorized the transfer of federal military technology to local police forces, essentially flooding civilian law enforcement with surplus military gear previously reserved for use during wartime.
As a result of equipment sharing, from 1995 to 1997 the Department of Defense handed over 1.2 million military items to law enforcement around the country. Among the giveaways were 3,800 M-16s, 185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers.
In 1997, an even greater amount of military equipment was passed on to local police departments thanks to the National Defense Authorization Security Act, which created the Law Enforcement Support Program, an agency tasked with accelerating the transfer of military equipment to civilian police departments. By the end of 2005, the new agency facilitated the distribution of $727 million worth of Pentagon equipment to some 17,000 police departments around the country. Among the hand-me-downs were aircraft such as Blackhawk helicopters, nearly 8,000 M-16 rifles, a couple hundred grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles.
Then came the war on terror, which prompted the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 under President George W. Bush. With it came the introduction of DHS grants, which are used to purchase policing equipment. While the grants allow law enforcement agencies to stock up on much-needed walkie-talkies and bulletproof vests, they have also led to the purchase of tanks, surveillance towers and even drones for domestic policing.
The police department in Washington County, Minnesota just purchased a 9-ton armored vehicle called the BearCat with a $237,000 DHS grant. The BearCat, which has bullet-resistant windows, gun ports, a battering ram on the front bumper, a tear-gas dispenser and a public address system, is quickly becoming the must-have item of the season. Missouri’s Springfield Police Department’s Special Response Team used a $200,000 DHS grant to purchase a Lenco BearCat G3 in July, but is still excitedly awaiting its arrival. Chief Paul Williams told reporters, “It’s a Humvee on steroids.”
The Vermont State Police are now the proud owners of a BearCat G3 as well. A $189,400 DHS grant, in addition to $65,998 worth of forfeited assets from convicted drug dealers, were used to cover the vehicle’s $255,398 cost. The state police say they plan on sharing it with city and county law enforcement agencies, should they “face an active shooter, high-risk warrant subject, or barricaded suspect.”
It’s not just tanks—or more appropriately, armored personnel vehicles—that police departments are purchasing with DHS grants. Nick Turse recently reported on the mobile watchtower the NYPD has stationed by Zuccotti Park to keep an eye on the occupiers, but the NYPD isn’t the only police department equipped with an eye in the sky. Police in Norman, Oklahoma purchased their very own Skywatch mobile observation tower, which features a 25-foot-high observation platform that gives officers a birds-eye view of the crowds below.
While the newest models sell for about $96,000, the department found a used military surplus tower available for under $10,000, which they paid for with a DHS grant. According to Captain Mike Praizner, the tower will make its debut appearance on Black Friday in the Sooner Mall parking lot. Praizner told the local NewsOK, “Just its presence in a parking lot will deter thieves,” adding, “You’ll be seeing it a lot throughout the holiday shopping season at Sooner Mall, Ed Noble Parkway or sometimes in Walmart‘s parking lots.” Besides watching over consumers during the holiday shopping season, the Norman police plan on deploying the Skywatch to keep an eye out at big events such as football games and local festivals.
Norman isn’t the first town to patrol from above at local malls. In early 2009, the San Diego Police Department used a $119,000 DHS grant to purchase a Skywatch tower, which was used last year during a department-wide Holiday Watch patrol. From November 26 through January 14, the department towed the 25-foot-high tower around the county to thwart crime at shopping center parking lots.
Although holiday shopping can get out of hand, especially considering the crowds of stampeding consumers that amass hours ahead of Black Friday blowout sales and the amount of merchandise that will potentially be stolen as people stock up on holiday presents, there is something bizarre about the Department of Homeland Security funding shopping mall surveillance towers. After all, DHS is supposed to be allocating funds to boost counterterrorism efforts. Scuffles and thefts in the local Walmart parking lot don’t exactly add up to terrorist threats.
Of course, tanks and watchtowers are children’s toys compared to armed drone technology. In Montgomery County, Texas police have just added a weaponized drone to their arsenal.
The ShadowHawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), a $300,000 piece of equipment made by the Texas-based Vanguard Defense Industries, was recently purchased by the Montgomery County, Texas, sheriff’s department with a DHS grant. The 50lb drone, capable of traveling at a top speed of 70mph, can be equipped with stun baton beanbag launchers and an XREP Taser, which is a wireless Taser projectile that can be shot up to 100 feet away to deliver neuromuscular incapacitation, or electric shock, to immobilize its target.
Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Gage told reporters, “We’re the only sheriff’s office in the state that’s going to have a piece of equipment like this.” Actually, they’re the only department in the country to possess a weaponized drone like the ShadowHawk. Thus far, the ShadowHawk has only been used by the military in Afghanistan and East Africa for counterterrorism operations.
While Gage assured reporters that the drone would not be armed and would only be used to maintain public safety, the ACLU and other civil libertarians remain skeptical. They have raised concerns about the potential for violations of privacy as well as the drone’s ability to be armed.
Montgomery County might be the first and only law enforcement agency equipped with a weaponized military drone, but given the rapid acceleration of militarization of local police department arsenals, it may not be the last.