(InvestigateTV) – During the recent demonstrations, cardboard signs pleading “Justice for George Floyd” are the only protection many protesters carry as some local law enforcement officers gear up with military-grade equipment.
After almost three weeks of worldwide protests over the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, questions about militarizing police have sparked up again.
The death of the unarmed Black man at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department brought people out in hundreds of U.S. cities. Some of those demonstrations turned into violent clashes with heavily-armed police. Now the police presence and response during those protests and riots has forced the nation to reconsider police departments’ protocol on use of military-style equipment.
The debate over police militarization heated up in 2014 after an unarmed 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The city erupted in protests. In response, law enforcement agencies deployed their military-style equipment to manage the escalating crowds, earning criticism for their use of force.
Amid protests and riots in the wake of Floyd’s death, the public is again questioning whether law enforcement should have access to militarized equipment.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation have received military gear through the Department of Defense LESO/1033 program, which provides excess military equipment to police departments.
The DOD was authorized to transfer excess military gear to assist state and local law enforcement agencies to protect their citizens.
Hundreds of local law enforcement agencies – from the largest to the smallest – now own equipment and weapons meant for war. Police in Minnesota, for example, now collectively own more than 20,000 military items.
But it wasn’t until the 2014 Ferguson shooting that the program garnered public attention.
In response, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2014 (Executive Order 13688: Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition) that required federal agencies to review what equipment was being supplied to police departments. The executive order also restricted excessive use of militarization equipment and the use of weapons of war by inexperienced police.
But President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s restrictions and now allows law enforcement access to military equipment and resources regardless of training or experience.
Militarized policing dates back decades to Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Crime, where former President Johnson considered police officers as frontline soldiers and proposed legislation to provide funds to states and cities to help the criminal justice system.
In the following decades, local police departments have deployed military-grade equipment such as grenade launchers, night-vision equipment and M16 rifles.
Rylan Simpson, assistant professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, found in his research that parameters are needed to justify why police departments should have this equipment.
“Do they need all types of military equipment? Absolutely not,” Simpson said. “Is there a need potentially in some situation for a protected, armored vehicle? I think most would say yes.”
InvestigateTV analyzed federal data detailing the transfers of this equipment to local law enforcement agencies at little to no cost through DOD’s report.
Hundreds of departments such as the Madison Police Department and Superior Police Department, both in Wisconsin, have requested items such as mine-resistant vehicles.
Madison, the second-largest city in Wisconsin, serves a population of more than 240,000 residents; Superior, about 27,000.
Madison’s acting chief Victor Wahl said the department received its first mine-resistant vehicle six years ago.
“I think, like most urban law enforcement agencies across the country, we have to deal with gun violence and dealing with having to apprehend dangerous suspects and [there is a] heavy need for an armed vehicle for those assignments,” Wahl said.
InvestigateTV analyzed more than a decade of government data that shows where equipment such as mine-resistant vehicles, rifles, protective-gear has been requested and distributed.
In Texas, the Wichita Falls Police Department and the Wichita County Sheriff’s Office each received a mine-resistant vehicle. About 132,000 people live in the county. In Florida, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office received two mine-resistant vehicles. About 328,000 people live there.
The police department in Monett, Missouri also has two mine-resistant vehicles – for a rural city of about 9,000 residents. Police officials declined an interview request.
In the six years before the August 2014 unrest in Ferguson, DOD gave more than 23,700 rifles to police departments and almost 606 mine-resistant vehicles, according to InvestigateTV’s analysis.
Since September 2014, police departments have acquired more than 400 mine-resistant vehicles through the program and more than 7,000 rifles have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies.
Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama are the top five states that have received the most mine-resistant vehicles in the years since Ferguson, with more than two dozen sent to departments in those states.
InvestigateTV analyzed requests that departments made in the first three months of this year. Those records provide justifications for why departments said they needed specific items.
For mine-resistant vehicles, all 29 departments that received trucks used the same reasoning: “This vehicle will be used for active shooter situations, hostage rescue, downed officer rescue, barricaded suspects and high-risk search warrants. It may also be used for natural disaster response.”
Places that requested these vehicles include Devils Lake, North Dakota; Uintah, Utah and Bent County in Colorado. Fewer than 10,000 people live in each of those areas.
At least 20 requests specifically named protests or riots as one reason for requesting equipment including batons, shields, an ATV, a video conferencing system, and riot training suits.
Questions about whether police departments should have access to military equipment have caused some to return their vehicles.
Chief Wahl in Madison said his department replaced its mine-resistant vehicle about two years ago with a Lenco BearCat, which is a smaller wheeled armored vehicle that is often used by S.W.A.T teams. These vehicles are better suited for local police-civilian encounters compared to the mine-resistant-vehicle, he said.
“The military ones are designed for a different mission, and it’s really not suited very well for civilian law enforcement agencies, so having one that is designed for that is much better for us and what we are trying to accomplish,” Wahl said.
Despite mixed community reaction to mine-resistant vehicles, Wahl believes that it’s more important than ever for the community to ask questions about the protocols and culture of local police.
“You can have a lot of scenarios that don’t have an armored vehicle or don’t have any sort of equipment and you have cops behaving pretty badly, and then you can have officers using armored vehicles in tactical situations and be completely professional and have an opportunity to engage with the public,” Wahl said.
Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said it made sense utilizing the DOD 1033 program to get a mine-resistant truck about six years ago.
“From my perspective as a chief and even as an officer growing up within the department, the 1033 program has been around for a long time. Most of the time we are requiring items that we can get on our own anyway, but we can get them for either free or a much lower cost through that program,” Alexander said. “I view it more as something that is oftentimes driven by physical restraint than a desire to feel more like a military-style organization.”
But similar to Wahl’s department, Superior also traded off its mine vehicle for the smaller armored vehicle.
Although Alexander said there weren’t many negative comments from the public about the mine-resistant vehicle, he said that a small group of residents believed city police shouldn’t have equipment that is meant for war.
“I had some veterans that said it was kind of triggering for them seeing a piece of military equipment,” Alexander said. To ensure his community is being heard, Alexander said he considers three questions before obtaining military-style equipment: “One: Does the department need it? Two: Will the department use it? And Three: What are the optics of it?”
Research from Simpson, the professor at Simon Fraser University, finds that how police officers dress and equip themselves can determine what the perception of the community has on law enforcement.
Officers who use equipment like black sunglasses, black gloves, and long batons can give negative perception of officers, while other items such as high-visibility vests might not, Simpson has found.
Critics say that law enforcement officers should not have access to military-style equipment, but for Simpson, the challenge is identifying where perception meets with functionality.
“I think it’s really about trying to think critically of when is this equipment appropriate? What are we using it for? And is the perception meeting the purpose?” Simpson said. “If we are more mindful of those perceptual implications, we can better craft, better deploy our officers in ways where perception and functionality can be complementary as opposed to mutually exclusive.”
Although the DOD provides police departments with an opportunity to select items through the inventory, Simpson encourages officers to consider the perception they are emanating to the public.
“It is important officers have access to equipment, but it is also important that they are mindful of how that equipment might be used,” Simpson said. “There are types of military equipment that might never have a place in local policing, there are other types of equipment that might have a function, but above all else, we have to consider very carefully how we deploy the equipment and why we use it.”