In November 2014, as Americans watched heavily armed and armored police bear down with tanks on unarmed, mostly black protesters in Ferguson, the House held a hearing on the militarization of US law enforcement. Congress was starting to rethink the 1033 program that led police officers of the small city on the outskirts of St Louis to suddenly look like invading troops, while law enforcement representatives insisted on the need to keep that military equipment flowing.
“A principal function of the police is to respond to the public safety threats that face our communities,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation. “Adequate and updated equipment is a necessity to keep both officers and our citizens safe. . . . I urge you to consider the program’s local public safety benefits.”
The executive director of another police association, the National Tactical Officers Association, explicitly cited the 1999 Columbine shooting as the reason the program had to continue.
“Minutes and even seconds count in an active shooter situation,” he said. “Lives are at risk if immediate police actions do not occur quickly and effectively. No longer can police departments wait for specialized units to respond to active shooter incidents.”
The hearings didn’t come to much. Barack Obama signed a landmark but flawed executive order restricting the weapons transfers, which Donald Trump quickly rescinded. “Much of the equipment provided through the 1033 program is entirely defensive in nature . . . that protect officers in active shooter scenarios and other dangerous situations,” read Trump’s proposal.
“Law enforcement authorities need such equipment in order to protect the public — for instance, during terrorist attacks,” explained the Heritage Foundation upon the order’s repeal.
“The police should have the weapons that they need to match criminals who have access to high-powered weapons,” said torture fan John Yoo over at the American Enterprise Institute. “Under-arming the police, who have a difficult job where they must make split-second decisions about life and death, is not going to help reduce violent crime in our inner cities.”
The supporters of police militarization won out. In a country plagued by terrorist threats and disturbed shooters, it was simply too risky not to have a police force armed to the teeth, ready to subdue whatever heavily armed attacker threatened the lives of Americans. So thousands of pieces of equipment worth millions of dollars continued to flow out from the Pentagon in the years after.
It all starts to look and sound pretty silly, though, in the wake of yet another horrendous mass shooting, this time at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, which left nineteen kids and two teachers dead. As we know all too well now, the Uvalde police not only didn’t stop the eighteen-year-old gunman during the twelve minutes that he was outside the school before he started killing; once he started killing kids inside, officers simply stayed where they were, asked the heavily armed tactical police not to charge in, and even restrained the distraught parents who were begging them to go in and save their kids, or at least let them try and do it themselves. As a local official explained, those officers didn’t go in because “they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed.”
In late May, when the mass shooting of the week was the racist rampage in Buffalo, I asked: What’s the point of letting various government agencies snoop through our emails, call records, and other private information if they can’t even use it to detect and prevent one of these mass murders? This week, tragically, a similar question must be asked: What’s the point of loading local police forces up with menacing war-fighting equipment if they’re still going to be fatally intimidated by one teenager with an assault rifle?
The answer, sadly, may be more or less the same. Like the various forms of privacy-shredding mass surveillance we’ve been told to accept as the price of physical security, these military transfers ultimately may not actually be that helpful for stopping what we’re told they exist to stop — namely, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and the like.
What they have proven remarkably useful for, though, is to intimidate and repress protesters and angry local populations, and so help quell and control civil unrest, especially when that unrest takes the form of angry protests demanding an end to the nonstop onslaught of police violence that has especially devastated black communities. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, suggested as much in his speech on the repeal of Obama’s executive order, charging it would “send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal.”
Critics of police militarization have been warning about this for a while: that maybe the most useful thing about all this military equipment isn’t so much to stop terrorism as it is to keep an unruly public under the government’s thumb, as is the case with militarized security forces in other countries. Maybe there was a time when this hypothesis could be easily dismissed. But seeing the fully kitted-out warrior cops of Uvalde standing by as an eighteen-year-old shot little kids to death makes it harder to do so.
Local police showed none of the same reluctance to act when protests erupted in Ferguson eight years ago, facing down unarmed protesters with weapons straight out of a foreign war zone, from tanks and armored vehicles to M4 rifles and shotguns. And I don’t remember any similar hesitancy from the federal police forces I saw when I visited Portland in summer 2020, materializing like space invaders to shoot tear gas canisters and pepper shot into crowds of moms and teachers. But in those cases, they were facing protesters armed with fireworks and leaf blowers, not assault rifles.
It’s also in stark contrast to the long-standing police practice of “no-knock raids,” where officers suddenly kick down a person’s door and terrorize whoever’s inside, guns drawn, killing their pets or the unarmed person inside for the sake of seizing a small amount of drugs — or, as in the case of Breonna Taylor, terrifying the bewildered inhabitants to such an extent that they provoke a deadly gunfight. Perhaps, without the element of surprise, or when you know the person inside is definitely dangerously armed, all that armor and weaponry isn’t quite so effective.
There’s no doubt someone will look at this horror and say that this proves the need to only militarize police and schools further. But that would be a disaster. Not only were police and tactical officers heavily armed and armored as they stood by and let this happen, not only did Uvalde have a SWAT team ostensibly for this very scenario, but the school district had doubled its security budget before the attack.
The way to address this is through the kind of gun control measures that exist in every other country — places that, coincidentally, don’t suffer constant mass shootings — and by attacking the root causes of what drives so many disturbed individuals — in this case a kid, no less — to the point of doing something unspeakable. More militarized police and schools will just mean more brutality and criminalization of students.
And it’ll also mean more brutalization of local communities, which bear the brunt of all this military equipment flowing to law enforcement. The parents of Uvalde may be furious at the police, but they should take care to keep their rage off the streets. After all, like so many other aggrieved communities, then they might really see what the full force of their militarized police can do.