The Scope of Police Militarization and its Consequences

I’ve written about the militarization of law enforcement here, here, and here. Yesterday I came across a long, but great article that detailed the extent of law enforcement militarization.

The article notes that the U.S. Government has distributed $34 billion in homeland security grants, but with little oversight and incomplete record-keeping. Fargo, North Dakota is highlighted for receiving over $8 million in grants, despite averaging less than two homicides per year since 2005. Nationwide, as violent crime and officers killed by gunfire has decreased, police departments nationwide are gearing up to fight terrorists. But should they be doing so? For example, Fargo has an armored truck costing over $250,000 that sees more action at the Fargo picnic than it does fighting terrorists.

Reading this article, I was reminded of Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine: if there is a 1% chance of something happening, we have to treat it as a certainty and respond as such. The law enforcement officials in the article all too quickly point to violent incidents in Los Angeles or Mumbai without stopping to analyze whether such events are likely in places like Fargo, North Dakota or Des Moines, Iowa (police there bought two bomb robots for $180,000 each).

That’s the thing about terrorism, whether it’s perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists, white supremacists, or environmentalists–it can happen anywhere. If you have a mall, a school, a town hall, a sports facility, or a theater for example, you have a potential target for terrorism. But that doesn’t mean terrorism will happen everywhere. Not all targets should be treated equally. Moreover, one of the goals of terrorism (one explicitly stated by Bin Laden) is to provoke a response that was disproportionate to the attack–to force the victim to hurt himself by overreacting. When beat cops in every small town carry assault rifles and wear bulletproof vests, I think we have responded disproportionately.

I see two negative consequences of such a response. First, law enforcement personnel who possess such weapons will use such weapons, even (as the article states) they do not always receive the necessary training–often with unfortunate results. We’ve seen disproportiona responses to the Occupy protestors. It seems odd to see police in ballistic helmets and kevlar vests storm the encampments of nonviolent and unarmed protestors. And Jose Guerena, a Marine, grabbed his rifle when he thought intruders were about to break into his house. Police stormed his house, and Guerena was shot 22 times and killed, even though he did not fire his rifle and nothing illegal was found in his house (no related arrests have been made in that investigation since the killing, by the way). The potential for terrorism is just that–potential. The disproportionate responses by law enforcement are actual.

Second, at a time when the U.S. economy is hanging on by a thread–and a second, worse recession looms, if Europe should take a turn for the worse–who benefits from these $34 billion in grants? Weapons and equipment suppliers, not the American people who are most need. Is this really an effective use of government funds? Maybe I’m just a bleeding-heart liberal who believes that the money could be better spent on infrastructure, schools, or health care. Or maybe it’s because I have yet to be convinced terrorism represents some existential threat requiring the U.S. to respond in this way. But I don’t feel safer when I see police officers carrying assault weapons and demanding to look into my bags before I get on the subway every morning. Money is being thrown at those officers, yet the subway trains in DC are literally falling apart. It seems to me that priorities need to change.

What do you think? Do you feel safer? Do you feel threatened? Where would you like to have seen $34 billion in grants go if not for counterterrorism?