Back in 2015, then-President Obama signed an executive order banning or restricting the kinds of military-grade equipment that police forces could buy from the federal government. However, President Trump has signed a new order that reverses the prior one, allowing police to get powerful weapons, like grenade launchers and tanks, that have no place outside of a war zone and are completely excessive for regular police activities.
The interest of local police departments using military weapons started in the mid-1990s, but accelerated rapidly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Politicians at all levels wanted local police forces to have the ability to deal with potential terrorist attacks, and gave them the opportunity to obtain surplus military equipment straight from the armed forces. The key provision allowing this to happen was Program 1033, named after the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that permitted it.
Needless to say, this spun out of control quickly, especially as spending for police grew as more politicians who were “tough on crime” got elected to office. Police departments bought so much military equipment that many police activities, even mundane ones, looked like military operations.
The aggressive posture that all of this military gear gave to police work became a serious problem during the period of time that saw numerous young and unarmed black men being shot and killed by police. Riots erupted in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and police deployed the full force of their military equipment, from camouflage uniforms to snipers to explosives. The results looked like a war zone.
So President Obama issued an executive order that severely limited the kinds of equipment that local police departments could obtain, seeking to end the “us versus them” mentality that this military presence had created in communities.
However, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were the exact kind of “tough on crime” candidates that backed the use of military force by police departments, in the first place. It’s unsurprising to see them overturn Obama’s restrictions and give police the ability to use military equipment to “protect themselves” while enforcing Maine’s laws. While this might be a priority when police have to deal with large-scale drug cartels or terrorist attacks, the reality is that these incidents rarely happen, and when they do, it is federal law enforcement that does most of the heavy lifting.
In the end, allowing local police departments to have military-level equipment puts the public on edge: They feel like their police department is more of an occupying force. It also puts the public in danger as police look for excuses to roll out their awe-inspiring equipment and escalate the tension in even a mundane activity of law enforcement.
Seeing local police departments in Maine wielding battlefield gear that was made to inflict mass casualties is disturbing. It turns the police from public servants and protectors into warriors who are looking to hurt people. Allowing them even greater access to this kind of equipment is one of the worst things that can happen.
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