A Bipartisan Effort Against Militarization of Law Enforcement

In the wake of the horrifying images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, a Republican senator and a Democratic congressman are speaking out strongly against the militarization of law enforcement and will submit legislation to eliminate the federal grants that have fueled that process. Sen. Rand Paul writes in Time magazine:

Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.

This is usually done in the name of fighting the war on drugs or terrorism. The Heritage Foundation’s Evan Bernick wrote in 2013 that, “the Department of Homeland Security has handed out anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns across the country, enabling them to buy armored vehicles, guns, armor, aircraft, and other equipment.”

Bernick continued, “federal agencies of all stripes, as well as local police departments in towns with populations less than 14,000, come equipped with SWAT teams and heavy artillery.”…

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It is what the citizens of Ferguson feel when there is an unfortunate and heartbreaking shooting like the incident with Michael Brown.

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

Hear, hear. Rep. Hank Johnson is already preparing legislation to stop this:

Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson proposed legislation on Thursday aimed at demilitarizing domestic police forces, amid national criticism of heavily armed cops going after protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

“Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” the Democratic congressman wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter to members of Congress. “Unfortunately … our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces.”

The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act would prevent the transfer of certain military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies. That includes some automatic weapons, armored vehicles, armored drones, silencers and flash-bang or stun grenades.

Johnson boasted endorsements from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, American Civil Liberties Union and Defending Dissent Foundation.

“Before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to reign in the Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America. I hope we can work together on this important issue,” he wrote to colleagues.

Johnson will formally introduce the bill in September when Congress returns from summer recess, his office told TPM.

Now the bad news. Only five weeks ago, the House voted on an amendment submitted by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). It was voted down 62-355. This is one of those areas where liberals and libertarians agree (though the Democrats in Congress still keep voting for it). The only way this gets fixed is if we work together to create a grassroots uprising over it because there’s no moneyed interest that wants to see it fixed. And without that, things rarely get done. Congress doesn’t do much of anything unless there’s someone willing to pay them to do it.

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  • D. C. Sessions

    Ed, have you looked up the definition of “bipartisan” lately? In two words, it’s “non starter.” In three it’s “dead on arrival.”

    Any legislation that doesn’t forward a partisan advantage, directly or indirectly (e.g. through corporate campaign donations) doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Congress.

  • Doug Little

    Congress doesn’t do much of anything unless there’s someone willing to pay them to do it

    Sad but true.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Okay, that looks like a decent first step. The next step would be disarming the general population to a point where cops wouldn’t need to worry about getting shot over routine shit like traffic stops. Is Randy Paul on board with that?

    Another good step would be ramping down all the downright deranged anti-government and anti-bureaucrat rhetoric we’ve been hearing from both Republicans and libertarians since Reagan identified government as “the problem.” Will Republicans like Sarah Palin finally do their part and stop blathering about “Second Amendment remedies?”

    Oh, and one Republican and one Democrat aren’t a “bipartisan effort;” they’re just two guys making an effort. It’s not “bipartisan” unless the actual PARTIES are in on it.

  • colnago80

    Of course, anyone who votes for such a bill will be accused by his opponent in his/her next election of being “soft on crime”, which is another disincentive for supporting it.

  • colnago80

    Re #4

    By the way, the phrase “soft on crime” which the Rethuglicans have been using since time of Ronnie the rat is a textbook example of conservatives “rubbing raw the sores of discontent” showing themselves to be the most devoted followers of Saul Alinsky.

  • Trebuchet

    I’m actually worried that we’ll be seeing the other side of the coin in Ferguson, MO, where the National Guard is being called in. Weekend warriors who likely have no training in crowd control.

  • magistramarla

    The interesting thing is that I felt safer and more relaxed when living and shopping on a military installation.

    There are no-nonsense signs on the doors to the BX and commissary saying NO GUNS ALLOWED.

    I watched the military police patrolling my neighborhood. They would wave and smile, stop to assist kids crossing the street to the school bus and participate in safety expos in the commissary parking lot.

    Once I watched the MPs stop, chase down a dog that had gotten away from a couple of kids, and return the dog with smiles all around.

    Nearly every time that I walked my German Shepherd mobility dog in the neighborhood, the MPs would stop to admire him and ask me about his training.

    Now that I’m living in Texas again, it’s a different story. The open carry nuts are making it so that I’m wary about shopping. I saw one in the food court of an outlet mall on the biggest back-to-school shopping weekend. That food court was packed with families, and I was thinking to myself that a shootout there could be devastating.

    There have been cases in the state lately in which the swat teams have burst into homes and automatically shot the dogs in the home, sometimes in front of children, and then realized that they had raided the wrong address.

    Recently, police shot a dog that had wandered into a Walmart. I wondered if the dog might have been a family pet, lost and frightened. I fear for the safety of my dog in ways that I never did in California.

    It goes without saying that Texas police are highly armed and militarized.

    It’s really telling that the local police are more visibly armed than the military police are.

  • dingojack

    “In the wake of the horrifying images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, a Republican senator and a Democratic congressman are speaking out strongly against the militarization of law enforcement and will submit legislation to eliminate the federal grants that have fueled that process.”

    [Slow golf clap]

    magistramarla – would it make you feel more or less safe if the police carried no guns at all?*



    * such as in England (I believe).

  • magistramarla

    dingo jack,

    Exactly! My husband and I were discussing a great article in the Huff Post written by a journalist who grew up in England comparing her experiences there with her experiences here in the US.

    My comment was “I want to live there!” My husband said “Me too!”

    Yes – I would feel more safe in a country with very strict gun control laws for everyone, including the police.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Hold it — dingojack, magistramarla, are you seriously proposing that the police be subject to the same laws as the peasantry?

  • dingojack

    D. C. Sessions – Heaven forfend!

    magistramarla – I wasn’t ‘begging the question’ BTW, I was genuinely interested.


  • magistramarla


    Yes – not every military officer (or retired one) in the US is a hawk.

    The AF was a lot less crazy when my hubby signed on over 30 years ago.

    Now he’s a civilian worker for the DOD. Our dream is for him to pick up a NATO assignment in Europe.

    We could stay there until he retires and then retire there if the US keeps declining.

    We have a son-in-law who is a guest lecturer at Oxford and a university in Berlin every summer.

    He has a summer lease on apartments in each place. My daughter is a scientist, and their plan is to bolt to Europe if things get worse for scientists and intellectuals in this country.

    It’s a sad commentary on the US, but the best and brightest have plans to leave.

  • Matt G

    Do the Republicans realize that it is only a matter of time until a white kid gets shot, possibly after being mistaken for a black kid?

  • blf

    Yes, most goons in both the Irish Republic and the UK do not carry guns, albeit both have supposedly-trained armed response units. It does fell much safer seeing the typical goon, knowing they will have more problems in killing you then goons in USAlienstani. Not much, however — They are even more immune to the rule-of-law than the goons in USAlienstani, and are not encumbered by such things as the Bill of Rights or (in the UK) actually having a written constitution. The UK Parliament is attempting to release them from such odious limitations as the European Charter of Human Rights, or any oversight except by the excessive-tame UK “courts”.

  • ianken

    The hyperbole doesn’t help. “Heavy artillery” and “tanks?” They have none of these things. Automatic weapons and APCs? Sure. Do they need the APCs? No. And most municipalities don’t need automatic weapons.

    The main problem is one of attitudes and fostering a pretend soldier mindset. Want to have cool macho military gear but too chicken shit to enlist? Become a cop! The lack of discipline shown by the goons in Ferguson is pathetic.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    Well, I am stopping in to so kudos to Obama and these two representatives on this issue. Hope something comes of it. I have no idea if something will.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Meanwhile, in the “how extreme do you have to be” journal:

    KKK Disowns KKK Fundraiser for Darren Wilson