Today, President Obama is expected to announce some major policy changes in the 1033 Program, the federal initiative that transfers surplus military equipment from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies across the country. It’s the administration’s long-awaited response to the debate sparked by the police response to last summer’s protests in Ferguson, Mo.
According to NBC News, the new policy will stop “tanks and other tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition measuring .50-caliber and larger, grenade launchers and bayonets” from being given to local police agencies.
Additionally, the new policy would attach some restrictions and conditions to the transfer of other equipment, “including armored tactical vehicles like those used in Ferguson, as well as many types of firearms, ammunition and explosives.” These restrictions include requiring the agencies to present “a clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the controlled equipment,” adopt community-oriented policing strategies, agree to “close federal oversight and monitoring overseen by a new federal agency with the power to conduct local compliance reviews,” train officers who will be using the gear, and keep data on how the equipment is used and with what results.
This announcement is significant. There are types of objections to how the 1033 Program affects police militarization in America. The first is a practical objection — this equipment was designed for use on the battlefield. There’s just no appropriate domestic application for a tracked tank or for guns that shoot .50-caliber ammunition.
The second objection is more about mindset, symbolism and the kind of society in which we want to live. There are plenty of scenarios under which a police department would legitimately need a bulletproof truck. But there’s really no reason why that truck needs to be an MRAP, or painted camouflage or military green, or designed to look as imposing and intimidating as possible. Imagery is important. It’s an indication of how the police see themselves, how they see the community they serve and how the perceive their relationship with that community. And all of that in turn affects how the community views the police. It isn’t difficult to understand how a cop who is dressed in camouflage who rides around the neighborhood in an MRAP is likely to approach to his job with a different mindset than a cop in traditional police blues who conducts daily foot patrols in the same neighborhood.
From what has been reported, this new initiative addresses these concerns as well and seems to indicate that the Obama administration understands and appreciates that the symbolic component of police militarization is just as important as the practical component. I’m uncomfortable with any military vehicles going to local police. Free societies tend to draw a clear line between cops and soldiers. Blurring that line indicates a failure to appreciate its importance. But this initiative is moving toward reestablishing that line, not moving it or further blurring it. Federal programs are pretty difficult to disband, so a blanket ban was probably never in the cards. Conditioning the acceptance of this gear on increased transparency, accountability and a move toward community policing seems like a good compromise. We’ll either get less use of this military-issued equipment, or we’ll get more and better information about how it’s used. Either outcome is progress.
Obama is making the announcement in Camden, N.J. That, too, is significant. From today’s New York Times:
The city, racked by poverty and crime, has become a national model for better relations between the police and citizens after replacing its beleaguered police force with a county-run system that prioritizes community ties.
Mr. Obama is expected to hold up Camden as a counterpoint to places like Ferguson, where the killing of a young black man by a white police officer last summer and the violent protests that followed exposed long-simmering hostility between law enforcement agencies and minorities in cities around the country.
The trip and the action on military-style equipment are to coincide with the release on Monday of a report from a policing task force that Mr. Obama formed late last year in response to the crisis in Ferguson. The 116-page report calls for law enforcement agencies to “embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mind-set to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”
But Camden is more than just a success story. It’s a success story that overcame obstinacy from all the usual suspects. Here’s the Times reporting on Camden back in 2012:
Two gruesome murders of children last month — a toddler decapitated, a 6-year-old stabbed in his sleep — served as reminders of this city’s reputation as the most dangerous in America. Others can be found along the blocks of row houses spray-painted “R.I.P.,” empty liquor bottles clustered on their porches in memorial to murder victims.
The police acknowledge that they have all but ceded these streets to crime, with murders on track to break records this year. And now, in a desperate move to regain control, city officials are planning to disband the Police Department.
The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.
That plan in Camden set off predictable public squabbling about public-service unions a few years ago. The Huffington Post warned, “Chris Christie Pushes Union-Busting Police Plan For Country’s Poorest City.” ThinkProgress howled, “Crime-Ridden New Jersey City Busts Police Union To Save Money.”
But the Camden police contract was ridiculous. For example, an incredibly generous leave policy meant that on an average day, 30 percent of the city police department called in sick. The new arrangement actually brought more cops into Camden and paid them better. As the Web site Keystone Politics reported at the time, other than the union issue, the move was actually in line with the politics of progressives.
Under the County police force plan Camden County is adopting, the city of Camden will have access to more police officers than it has now, and the city’s police services will be paid for by the wealthier Camden County tax base. Since the median Camden County taxpayer is a good deal wealthier than the median Camden city taxpayer, this is a progressive change in the tax burden.
What’s more, a County police force will achieve some economy of scale by consolidating administration on the back-end. It costs a lot of money to employ administrators and maintain facilities for all the individual municipalities in Camden County. As more municipalities contract for coverage from the County police, the overhead costs of running the police service will likely fall.
In my book, this is a progressive change. A poor area is getting more and better core public services, and the regional tax burden is now going to be more progressive.
Under the new plan, cops would get out of their squad cars and walk beats. They’d engage with residents instead of reacting to them. By the following summer, the number of murders in Camden had dropped from 21 to six, and shootings were down by 43 percent.
The lessons from Camden aren’t about the propriety of local vs. county police, or really even about the debate over public-service unions (the new police force is now unionized). It’s really about about incentives and attitude — or as the policing commission put it, whether cops should be seen — and see themselves — as warriors or guardians. If police unions encourage and facilitate the latter, great. If they continue to obstruct as the previous union did in Camden, and as the national police union is doing in opposition to militarization reform, I suspect we’ll see more cities look for Camden-like solutions.
Now for the bad news.
There’s no understating the role the 1033 Program played in militarizing U.S. police forces. Though it was codified in the 1990s, the transfer policy existed informally dating back to the early 1980s. So reining it in is important. It sends a clear message that the administration really gets this issue.
That said, most of the militarization today happens outside the 1033 Program. As the Heritage Foundation reported last year, few of the weapons we saw in those iconic images coming out of Ferguson were obtained through 1033. That program created the thirst for militarization, but police agencies can now quench that thirst elsewhere. Since 2003, for example, the Department of Homeland Security has been giving grants to police departments around the country to purchase new military-grade gear. That program now dwarfs the 1033 Program. It has also given rise to a cottage industry of companies that build gear in exchange for those DHS checks. Those companies now have a significant lobbying presence in Washington. I suspect that presence will now only grow stronger. So if the Obama administration really wants to roll back police militarization, this program needs reform, too.
Police agencies also sometimes buy the gear directly from manufacturers. Some purchase gear through donations. In some cases, even individual officers buy their own stuff. There really isn’t much the Obama administration can do about these sources of militarized weapons.
Ultimately, I think going after the symbolism component to militarization is more important than attacking the the practical component. Most police departments are always going to have a SWAT team. Larger departments will have several. So the option to use militarized force will always be available. The key is to get them to opt for it only when it’s appropriate. (A good start would be to remove the incentives to use such force when it isn’t.) Or better yet, to instill a healthy reluctance to use such force at all — to make deescalating conflicts the priority instead of overwhelming them.
The good news is that this new policy suggests that the Obama administration understands this. But the push will have to come from the bottom up, too. The federal government can stop contributing to the problem, but it will be up to local activists, voters and elected officials to actually change it. There will be resistance, from unions, from police advocates and probably from politicians. But police agencies are ultimately answerable to the communities they serve. If a city’s police leadership has adopted use of force policies that don’t conform with a community’s values, the community should demand new leadership. If the city’s politicians don’t comply, then the community should demand new politicians.
It’s certainly important to reduce the capacity of police agencies to inappropriately apply militarized force. But if we can quell the desire to use it, we’ll have made real progress.