Militarized Police? Think Again

SWAT_team_(4131372991)Randy Balko’s recent Huffington Post article speaks of newfound distrust between public and police. In a seven-point piece, Balko warns about U.S. funding trends that could lead to a “garrison state” with warlike cops, unrestrained budgets and brutality. In my opinion, Balko is blowing things out of proportion. Government programs lead to positive outcomes in the law enforcement community. And these days, cops need all the help they can get.

Let me try to break down four of the writer’s points with some basic information:

1. The Department of Defense is arming cops.  This is partly true, but it’s hardly an example of a shift to trigger-happy thuggery. For some time, the D.O.D.’s Defense Logistics Agency has offered surplus vehicles, clothing, weapons, computers, and other equipment to police. Supplies are a big problem for public-funded departments that face annual budget cuts. Programs like the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program can help cops get some of what they need. Either way, Uncle Sam is glad to clean out his basement! Remember this:  surplus is a polite word for junk that went out of style, junk that was starting to stink, junk that we couldn’t sell elsewhere, and junk that was gonna break down anyway.

The media usually centers around small-town cops slapping light bars on APCs. Military vehicles are useful, but unless you actively raid a drug den or barricade Main Street, those mechanized baddies are only paperweights. The police in Lebanon, Tenn. have a rarely-used LAV-150 with a Chrysler V8 that could make a suspect loose bowel control. The armored vehicle also has a mass of seven tons and a tendency for rear axle failure. Forget the cash needed to fuel this monster … how much taxpayer dough will you spend finding a mechanic who knows how to fix it? Some police would jump at the chance to drive an amphibious tractor, but unless you find the funding for maintenance and training, these toys will gather dust in the garage.

2. Byrne Grants are funding runaway task forces that terrorize citizens.  Balko speaks of a federally funded task force that frightened the citizens of two Texas communities in 1999 and 2005. The fiasco pointed to the recklessness and corruption of police commanders and resulted in major ACLU lawsuits. The Texas Drug Task Force was one of many recipients of the Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Program (JAG)—a huge source of funding for states, counties, municipalities, and other eligible units of government. JAG awards help law enforcement, prosecution, substance abuse programs, corrections, and many other public services. However, the mistakes made by Texas officers are not indicative of the whole of JAG recipients. While federal oversight should be a constant factor in funding, taxpayer money is going to far more than unwieldy task forces to keep the peace. When the dust cleared in Texas, the state government lost nearly nine million in grant money.

Balko also claims that task forces created by Byrne Grants “can operate with little or no funding from the polities they police.” But if such forces received a Byrne Grant, then they were dependents of and answerable to the civil authorities who found the money. Police themselves do not apply for the grant. The D.O.J. is quite clear in their application requirements when they note

the name listed on the organization line as an authorized recipient must be someone with the authority (county commissioner, mayor, city manager, or other designated official or agency) to enter the state, county, municipality, or other eligible unit of local government into a legal contract with the federal government.

3. COPS grants are just an excuse to make your own SWAT team.  Like the Byrne Grant, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is no sinister wellspring of militarized funding. This D.O.J. program focuses on safety training in schools, the health of officers, incident reviews, and new technology. The City of New Orleans used a COPS tech grant to improve radio communications after Hurricane Katrina. In 2009, the D.O.J. program awarded $1 billion to hire or rehire 5,000 officers over a three-year period in a thousand agencies. There is also oversight, as grantees are required to submit progress updates to the Department of Justice on a quarterly basis.

So contrary to Balko’s statement, not every grant has planted a SWAT team in your neighborhood. Due to the costs in SWAT upkeep, some towns are content to lend officers to regional SWAT teams rather than run their own. Their frequency of operation and effectiveness must be weighed against expenses, and no organization takes a harsher line on budgets than town management.

4. Homeland Security anti-terror grants also hand out military gear. Another assertion by Balko is that DHS grants help police to buy military gear to fight terrorism in places that … well, don’t really have terrorists. Again, Balko is describing only part of the big picture. Among other things, Homeland Security offers FEMA grants for disaster assistance and preparedness and TSA grants to secure transportation. Anti-terrorism gear is a drop in the bucket compared to the wide range of programs started thanks to federal awards.

Having no law enforcement background, my amateur research into this counter-argument was made entirely online. Yet I am puzzled why Randy Balko failed to post links to each of the major programs mentioned in his article. Readers of the Huffington Post deserve the opportunity to investigate for themselves. I am also bothered by Balko’s darker slant on police officers. Most Americans come from towns with hard-working cops. Day and night, officers respond to cases of cardiac arrest, drunk driving, burglary, lost children, drug dealing, and domestic disturbance. They also direct traffic, drive their cruisers in parades, speak to kids about strangers and drug abuse, and help visitors with directions. They also have families. The darker, dystopian future cast by this Huffington Post writer is not just in error, but contrary to the values held by professional officers today.

Check out my links to these various government programs. What do you think?

Photo:  Oregon Department of Transportation, Wikipedia

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