In the aftermath of the deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. last summer, protesters were met with police tactics that mirrored those used by the U.S. military.
The Ferguson unrest has highlighted the increasing militarization of police forces across the country.
“The reason why goes back to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security where all of the para-military organizations went under their jurisdiction largely because of security measures,” said Terri Jett, associate professor of political science at Butler University.
She adds that homeland security coordinates a lot of excess military equipment, therefore they make it available for local police departments at a low cost.
“It’s not just military equipment—it’s things like office equipment too. But we’ve become tuned in to the military equipment because you see these small police departments showing up with things like tanks, which aren’t necessary but they get them so cheap,” said Jett.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes heavily armed local police departments were created in the government’s attempt to “wage war on drugs.” The problem with their approach is that experts say a segment of the population is targeted.
“Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color,” said the ACLU.
This equipment is made possible by The 1033 Program. In 1990, Congress put forth the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized the transfer of excess Department of Defense personal property to federal and state agencies for use in counter-drug activities. Congress later passed the National Defense Authorization Act in 1997, which allowed all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for “bona fide law enforcement purposes that assists in their arrest and apprehension mission.”
Jett said it could be argued that police departments are arming themselves due to an increase in violence or that citizens are becoming more defensive due to aggressive police tactics or increases in crime.
Despite which came first, the chicken or the egg, she said much of the military-grade equipment is unnecessary because people are basing the need on the perception that there is more violence and not facts.
Local citizens have seen images and news reports of other cities using items such as tear gas and battering rams, which further incite fear. Indy residents should note, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) has its fair share of military items too.
Although the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper reached out to IMPD numerous times, at Recorder Newspaper press time, Chief Rick Hite had yet to speak with the paper about the department’s use of military-type equipment.
Indianapolis does maintain a full-time SWAT team and according to its website, the team routinely serves high-risk warrants and offers dignitary protection when requested.
SWAT officers are trained to respond to a wide variety of situations such as officer and citizen rescues, hostage rescues, barricaded subjects, armed suicidal subjects and crowd control situations.
The team takes its orders from Chief Hite.
Erin Polley, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action, said the military-grade equipment is not truly meant to protect innocent citizens, but to protect the police.
Jett agreed, and added she believes that military-grade equipment does not deter crime.
“There are so many other issues that need to be addressed—economic inequality, housing disparities, domestic violence. Equipping the police with more guns and whatever else they have is not going to resolve the issue,” said Jett.
She also said citizens shouldn’t soley rely on police to take back their streets from violence. Despite this, Jett says local police departments should work harder at learning about the citizens in the areas they patrol and spend more time doing positive activities within those communities.
She also suggests a citizen-run oversight board to influence how local police department policy is determined.
Polley adds the public should also take some responsibility and reflect on America’s values.
“We have way too much police. College campuses have their own police, Indy has a police department, areas like Speedway have their own security. It’s just so much,” said Polley. “If you look at America’s budget, a large portion of that is spent on defense with only a small amount going toward things like education. That shows what we value.”
To further address the militarization of police and how it affects communities across the U.S., AFSC erected an art exhibit in the atrium of Irwin Library on the campus of Butler University.
“Wars aren’t just taking place overseas, they’re happening right in our backyard,” said Polley. “We wanted to use art to involve people and start a conversation and challenge people’s ideas on what militarism is so we can dismantle the value people place on it.”