The far left, the far right and what seems like everyone in between are coming together on one particular issue: demilitarizing U.S. police forces.
On Monday, over 100 progressive leaders — including Reps. Marcia Fudge, Barbara Lee and John Lewis; AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Co-Founder Ben Cohen and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero — signed a letter to President Obama imploring the president to sponsor drastic nationwide changes to the country’s police forces.
The letter, published in an ad in the Washington Post, calls for the administration to work to stop “police militarization,” or the use of military tactics, philosophy and equipment by local police in situations that do not warrant them.
“In cities across America, local law enforcement units too often treat low-income neighborhoods populated by African Americans and Latinos as if they are military combat zones instead of communities where people strive to live, learn, work, play and pray in peace and harmony,” reads the letter. “Youth of color, black boys and men especially, who should be growing up in supportive, affirming environments are instead presumed to be criminals and relentlessly subjected to aggressive police tactics that result in unnecessary fear, arrests, injuries, and deaths.”
The peaceful protests that followed the shooting were met by Ferguson and St. Louis County police officers in full battle dress and camouflage, armored military vehicles, automatic rifles — which officers pointed at the protesters — and liberal dosings of tear gas and rubber bullets.
The situation — fueled by the police’s heavy-handed actions — grew so out-of-control that the governor was forced to transfer police authority for the region to the state’s Highway Patrol and temporarily call in the National Guard.
Monday’s letter requests that the Justice Department establish guidelines for racial bias training for all law enforcement personnel in the nation, accountability measures — including local independent review boards — for dealing with alleged police malfeasance, and assurances for maintaining police hiring that reflect the racial diversity of local communities.
Additionally, the letter calls for the issuance of DOJ youth grants to encourage police engagement with black and Latino youths, as well as a suspension of all military equipment grant, loan or purchasing programs for local police departments. It also proposes establishing an oversight program to monitor the already distributed military equipment, creating a national commission to review existing police policies and to identify best practices to improve community-based policing, and appointing a national policing czar charged with monitoring and addressing questionable police actions.
“From policing to adjudication and incarceration, it is time for the country to counter the effects of systemic racial bias, which impairs the perceptions, judgment, and behavior of too many of our law enforcement personnel and obstructs the ability of our police departments and criminal justice institutions to protect and serve all communities in a fair and just manner,” the letter continues. “The proliferation of machine guns, silencers, armored vehicles and aircraft, and camouflage in local law enforcement units does not bode well for police-community relations, the future of our cities, or our country.”
The outrage over police militarization is not limited to just the far left, but also the far right. Sen. Rand Paul, in an article for Time, for example, argues that police militarization represents an expansion of federal authority in local politics. “The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm,” wrote Paul. “It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.”
This represents a rare occurrence in which the progressive and libertarian caucuses are seeing eye-to-eye. Due to this unusual coalition, there is a sense of urgency to push through corrective legislation. Chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Federal Financial and Contracting Oversight Sen. Claire McCaskill has announced her intentions for her subcommittee to review the federal equipment purchasing/gifting/lending programs once Congress returns from recess. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 9 at 10:30 a.m. EDT.
McCaskill has expressed concerns that these types of programs represent a backdoor approach to earmarking, or directing federal funds to local districts. Earmarking has been banned in both chambers of Congress in an attempt to control spending and abuses in the system.
Despite this, there is a sense that the police cannot be demilitarized. According to a post written for the Washington Times by Erica Marat of the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University, the police respond to the people. As the U.S. is the most-armed nation in the world, with the civilian sector holding three times the number of guns as the military and law enforcement combined, it is neither reasonable nor practical for law enforcement to disarm.
As Marat states, the police must be ready to respond to any level of incident, and if civilians are able to legally possess military-grade equipment, so must the police. The better option is not to take arms away from the police, but to convince them to use them with better discretion.
“As the leading donor in international police reform programs, the United States can demonstrate best practices to the world. The chief strength is depoliticization and decentralization of the police in the United States,” wrote Marat. “Despite obvious setbacks, police units across the United States strive to improve their ability to serve communities with different racial and cultural backgrounds. Diversifying the police force is arguably a continuous, but achievable, process so long as there is enough institutional effort in place.”