Due to recent riots and protests in the wake of several high profile police killings, the news is full of images of armoured police officers, heavily equipped with riot shields, face and gas masks and armed with tear gas and other crowd control explosives.
Local law enforcement arrives at protests with the full appearance of an occupying army, tasked with preventing riots and protecting businesses from looting. American police departments are highly militarized and officers often conduct their jobs with a toxic “us versus them” attitude. But how did our local police forces come to act and dress like an occupying army?
The militarization of local police departments begins with our current military policy. As the world’s leading superpower in a unipolar world, American foreign policy frequently focuses on protecting and maintaining world markets as they currently exist. As outlined in the 2017 National Security Strategy from the White House, “Economic security is national security.” Thus, the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually to protect its dominant global position.
The United States currently has the largest military budget in the world, with a recent budget exceeding $700 billion. Although many consider a large military budget necessary to maintain the American position as an international superpower, the American military budget is bloated and riddled with redundancies.
Congressional legislators on both sides of the aisle approve high military budgets because many of their districts rely on jobs created through the manufacture of military equipment, which accounts for over 2.5 million American jobs.
Through a political strategy known as logrolling, high military budgets are passed and approved by dozens of lawmakers with military manufacturing plants in their districts. Even if American armed forces lack the need for additional equipment, congressional legislators often approve increased budgets in order to protect jobs in their districts.
The military turns to local law enforcement to shed excess equipment. Through a program created in the 1990s known as the 1033 Program, the Department of Defense transfers of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Because the DOD transfers military equipment to police departments, the DOD retains the property ownership of the equipment.
Police departments only pay for shipping and maintenance of the equipment, resulting in local law enforcement acquiring military grade equipment for pennies on the dollar. Since the program’s inception in the 1990s, the DOD has transferred over $7 billion in military equipment to law enforcement agencies.
While defunding the police and calls for police reform have echoed across the country in recent weeks, police reform or defunding alone will unlikely be effective in demilitarizing the police. Due to a bloated national military budget, excess equipment is affordable and accessible to police departments nationwide.
Police reform efforts must be coupled with congressional reform of the military budget. Congress should work to eliminate inefficiencies and redundancies in the military budget while also passing comprehensive police reform measures. Otherwise, Congress risks continuing a highly militarized police force in the United States.
Sam Hauke (he/him) is a senior studying law and public policy with minors in history and business.