Posted in: United States

Bringing in the Big Guns

By | November 27, 2013


Franklin County in the mountains of western Maine has no multilane highways, no real cities, nor any sizable towns. It has 30,000 residents, a population density of 18 people per square mile, and a claim to fame as the birthplace of the earmuff. Thanks to the Pentagon, by mid-2014 it will also have a $658,000, military grade, mine-resistant assault vehicle with a high-caliber turret mounted on its rooftop. Though originally designed for highly trained soldiers in Kirkuk and Fallujah, this particular vehicle is to be used by a 15-man sheriff’s department in a tranquil, forested slice of northern New England.

The International MaxxPro Ambush-Protected vehicle

The International MaxxPro Ambush-Protected vehicle

That’s the gist of one of the newsbreaks in a popular, October 3 article in the Lewiston Sun Journal. In that report, the regional paper from interior Maine outlines an arms dump by the Department of Defense upon several small law enforcement agencies in the state, in which several counties and towns—some with populations of less than 8,000—were approved earlier in 2013 to receive International MaxxPro Ambush-Protected vehicles.

The story was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook, and commenters beneath the piece were rightly incensed. They claimed that the money could be better used to buoy the region’s economy, that the area had no need for anti-terror equipment, that—as far as anyone could tell—it was free of landmines anyway. So widespread was the criticism that Sheriff’s Corporal George Cayer of rural Oxford County to the west—another recipient of the MaxxPro—felt the need to draft a defensive letter supporting the grants.

But despite the instinctual civilian repulsion to this outburst of Pentagon waste, these police departments in Maine are far from alone; in fact, every year thousands of transfers of military-grade equipment from the federal government to local police forces fly under the radar, without protest or even significant public criticism. As a result, few Americans—whether they live in Bangor, Cambridge, or Washington, D.C.—realize the scope of the overfunded, socially dangerous, and practically useless flow of materiel from Defense to civilian law enforcement.

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The experience of the diminutive Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg—part of the multibillion dollar ‘Program 1033,’ overseen by the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO).

The flow of weapons between the police and the military started under the Nixon administration, at the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs.” When the military had surplus materiel—and it always did—it would funnel it to federal and local law enforcement agencies. In 1998, what had been an informal policy was formalized, and LESO was founded in Fort Belvoir, Virginia with the sole purpose of streamlining these transactions.

According to National Journal, the agency had transferred $727 million of equipment during its first three years, including 253 aircraft, 7,856 M-16 rifles, and, the pièce-de-resistance, 181 grenade launchers (the article is, sadly, unavailable online). By 2011, the agency was bragging in its annual newsletter that it had doled out $500 million worth of equipment in that year alone. As of now, 17,000 law enforcement agencies from all fifty states are among LESO’s grantees.

So what kinds of police departments receive this equipment? Seemingly, all that apply. The internal workings of LESO are opaque and poorly documented, partially because Defense is one of the few branches of the government that cannot produce auditable financial statements in accordance with federal law. But if there’s one man qualified to speak on this topic, it’s Radley Balko, a journalist and former writer for Reason, who penned the well-received Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces earlier this year. In an interview with the HPR, he claimed that very few applicants to LESO’s programs came away empty handed.

“It seems to be a matter of filling out the paper work,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a department being turned down.”

Norm Stamper, former Seattle Police Chief and vocal opponent of American police militarization, concurred with Balko’s sentiment. While chatting with the HPR before a TED talk on the issue in Seattle, he told stories of three-man—even one-man departments—receiving grants from the federal government.

Among the recipients was the lone sheriff of the 62-person Loving County, a townless, crimeless expanse of sagebrush with a population density of 0.1 people per square mile—about half that of the Northwest Artic Borough in Alaska.

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Though both Balko and Stamper describe police militarization in the United States as a multigenerational process beginning with the intensification of the drug war in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both claim that it accelerated significantly after 9/11. At the head of this charge was the newly created, and, by many accounts, highly wasteful Department of Homeland Security, which began to directly grant local police departments monies for ‘anti-terror’ equipment. When this occurred, domestic law enforcement agencies no longer had to sponge off the excesses of the Pentagon, but could instead obtain military equipment from their own direct source.

In 2011, according to The American Interest, the DHS gave out $2 billion in law enforcement grants, mostly to places that will face no terrorist threat in the near future (e.g. places like Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.)

In addition to creating another channel for government waste, DHS grants have given rise to what Balko calls the “police-industrial complex,” whereby defense contractors re-gear their production toward domestic law enforcement.

“We’ve gotten to the point where businesses rely on DHS grants for their own survival,” he said. “Companies that were once designing equipment for the battlefield are now designing it for the American streets.”

Among the corporate giants of this newly arisen “complex” is LENCO, which produces the now omnipresent Bearcat Armored Vehicle—a vicious looking contraption that has become de rigeur for rural and urban police departments alike. A visit to the company’s website reveals that—in addition to domestic law enforcement—Middle Eastern autocrats, presumably spooked by the so-called Arab Spring, have seen fit to acquire entire Bearcat fleets over the past year.

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Among the other byproducts of the police-military link that has arisen in the past four decades is the proliferation of the SWAT team.

To be sure, the original SWAT unit had nothing to do with the DHS or the Pentagon. It started in Los Angeles in the 1960s during a tense period of racial and social unrest, which had seen the death of at least one officer during ‘active shooter’ situations. The first SWAT deployment took place against a Black Panther hideout in 1969, with the second high-profile incident taking place against the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973.

Though SWAT teams became the norm for major metropolitan police departments thereafter, the mid-1970s saw no more than a few hundred raids per year. This number ballooned to about 3,000 in the early ‘80s when SWAT units, under Reagan, began to serve narcotics warrants. But the shift toward our modern SWAT landscape didn’t come until the late ‘90s and early naughts with the foundation of LESO and the DHS.

With sheriffs and police chiefs under a cascade of free and heavily subsidized military-grade equipment, everyone had to have their own SWAT unit—in some cases several. And, as Stamper put it, “When you have all these toys, you want to play with them.”

By 2005, there were 50,000 SWAT raids annually in the United States. Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, the man who keeps track of these figures, estimates that this number could be as high as 80,000 today. And though a small minority of these raids occur in genuine emergency situations, the vast majority are frivolous at best.

On one comical occasion, a unit in Missouri drew laughs for raiding and putting to gunpoint a team of Tibetan monks who were on a peace-exchange mission and had accidently overstayed their immigration papers. On many more tragic occasions, dozens of innocent young children and elderly retirees have been slaughtered in mistargeted or negligently conducted SWAT raids in the last decade alone.

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Whether all this new DHS and LESO equipment was the cause of changing attitudes among cops or the consequence is unclear. What is clear, according to Kraska, Balko and Stamper, is that American police forces have begun to see themselves as estranged militants in an anarchic, hostile world—increasingly armored, sequestered in their squad cars, with fewer and fewer emotional ties to the communities they’re protecting.

“Police officers are constantly being told how dangerous their jobs are, as if every interaction they have is likely to be their last,” said Balko. “But the fact is that last year was the safest time on the job since the 1960s. A mindset problem has emerged—an us versus them, danger-at-every-corner mentality—and it’s largely due to police militarization.”

As an example of the modern law enforcement attitude, Balko tells the anecdote of a friend who lived in an apartment building in which a man was arrested for downloading child pornography. In order to secure the premises, an FBI SWAT team violently detained everyone in the building—his friend included—until the suspect in question was in custody. He also points to a popular, militaristic column on the preeminent online journal of law enforcement personnel, Attacking Balko’s book, a SWAT team commander from Sterling Heights, Michigan, Sergeant Glenn French writes:

We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works in a battlefield everyday he patrols his sector. … Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers that our brave soldiers do in war.

Unfortunately, it seems that French’s column is far from isolated in terms of the sentiment it expresses. At a recent public meeting in Concord, New Hampshire, the local police chief cited Occupy New Hampshire and other nonviolent organizations in the state as the motivating factor for his acquisition of a Bearcat. Across the border in Oxford County, that letter already alluded to from Corporal Cayer read, “The Western Foothills of the State of Maine…currently face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities,” as if Lashkar-e-Taiba were about to take out a beanhole supper.

Kraska, among many other police actions detailed in his academic papers, points to an initiative in the ‘90s, in which Fresno’s police department declared its city a “war zone,” deploying SWAT units dressed in army fatigues and high-caliber weapons to patrol the streets fulltime. “Police officers working in patrol vehicles, dressed in urban tactical gear and armed with automatic weapons are here—and they’re here to stay,” read a memorandum later issued by the FPD.

boston police marathon bombing

Boston police patrol East Watertown during the Marathon bombings.

Looking at higher profile incidents, it appears as if Balko’s and Kraska’s estimation of the modern police mentality is just as accurate. Let’s examine, for a moment, law enforcement’s pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers in the days following the Boston Marathon bombings. Whether or not one agrees with the tactics of state and city police officials back in April, the fact remains that there was no precedent for an urban lockdown applying to almost one million people during the pursuit of two assailants. Most Harvard students will remember hunkering down in their dorms while squadrons of Bearcats, police tanks, SWAT vans, and MBTA buses full of armored police officers hurled by on Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues. Most businesses were shuttered, intersections were eerily still, while these two men hid out in East Watertown—a suburban neighborhood far removed from downtown Boston, or even, really, Harvard Square for that matter.

At the risk of belittling the incident at hand, there’ve been plenty of shooters in American cities before—many much more homicidal than the Tsarnaevs. Yet in only one circumstance did an entire metropolitan area hole up and submit to a soft version of martial law

“We’ve had lots of shooters in U.S. cities before,” said Stamper. “We’ve responded in the past without rolling tanks down the street. And, besides, it wasn’t an armored personnel carrier that found [Jahar Tsarnaev], but a guy who came out back to check on his boat after the restrictions were lifted.”

* * *

For years, complaining of police militarization was the realm of the libertarian fringe, and—though it’s still not a mainstream topic—Balko believes that public opinion is slowly shifting.

“We’re finally beginning to see a bit more skepticism online, by pundits and commenters,” he said.

Just in the past year, articles on the issue have appeared in the New Yorker, Salon, Huffington Post, The American Interest, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, (granted many were written by this story’s interviewees,) and town meetings are beginning to fill with those opposed to the acquisition of military grade equipment by their community’s police department. In October in Oakland, a protest rally made national news when it gathered outside the multinational Urban Shield SWAT convention, and back in Concord, the city council had to table approval on the Bearcat, as townspeople collectively filibustered the vehicle, speaking for hours and hours on end against its acquisition.

This grassroots opposition does not compose a mandate, nor has it seeped into the upper echelons of politics—partially, Balko opines, because Democrats love to capitulate to public workers, (e.g. police officers,) and Republicans love large, shiny weapons. But, as the last few months have shown, Americans have begun to push back at the local level. And in the absence of a motivated political bloc on Capitol Hill, that may be the perfect—and the only—place to start.

Image credit: Lewiston Sun Journal,

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