Over the past week, (mostly peaceful) protesting citizens in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri have been met by their tiny police force with tanks, body armor, sniper rifles, teargas, and absurd camouflage. (The residents are protesting, among other things, long-running oppressive treatment by the 53-officer force, which crescendoed last weekend in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.) Among the many things Ferguson has made us take a closer look at, it's shined a spotlight on a federal program that transfers surplus military equipment to local police forces—arming protect-and-serve types with the gear of war.
The New York Times reported on the program back in June and this past weekend published a handy map showing what insane gear is going where: In Los Angeles County, law enforcement agencies have received three grenade launchers ("Usually used for smoke grenades and tear gas"), 15 helicopters (it's inconclusive how effective the LAPD's notorious aerial policing is), three mine-resistant vehicles, four "other" armored vehicles, one plane, and thousands of assault rifles, pieces of body armor, and night vision gear. Why they could have themselves a real war out there on the streets.
The problem with militarizing local police is that they are supposed to be protecting communities, not fighting wars. As Vox.com pointed out recently, "when they have something, they feel the need to use it — one of the main programs through which police departments get military equipment formally requires use within one year, and even in the absence of such requirements the psychological and institutional pressure to use new toys is hard to resist."
The LAPD has not been known historically for sensitive policing; following a decade of assault, profiling, and drug scandals, the Department of Justice created a consent decree in 2000 to monitor the department's behavior. The decree was lifted in 2009 and former Chief Bill Bratton (now head of the NYPD) was credited over the decade with making the LAPD a friendlier force in the communities it polices. But data just reported in the LA Daily News shows that police in the LAPD, LA County Sheriff's Department, and Pasadena Police Department are still shooting Latino and black people at extremely disproportionate rates (African-Americans make up eight percent of the population but 26 percent of the victims in "officer-involved shootings").
Two days after Brown was shot in Ferguson, an LAPD officer shot and killed an unarmed 25-year-old named Ezell Ford in Florence. But the department has been smarter than to crack down on protests the way Ferguson PD have; officers at yesterday's demonstration for Ford Downtown were in regular uniform carrying the regular amount of deadly weaponry.
Meanwhile, in other terrifyingly disproportionate displays of force: campus police at Compton schools this year will be allowed "to buy AR-15 rifles and carry them in their patrol car trunks while on duty," reports KPCC, supposedly to take down mass shooters. "Handguns you'd be lucky to hit accurately at 25 yards … With a rifle in the hands of a trained person, you can be go 50, 100 yards accurately," explains the Chief of the Compton Unified Police. A recent grad and political activist says "The school police has been very notorious in the community and in reality has never had to shoot anyone before." Parents in the district also filed a lawsuit last year alleging the officers have engaged in racial profiling.
· Mapping the Spread of the Military's Surplus Gear [NYT]
· Graphic: The numbers on Los Angeles' officer-involved shootings [LADN]
· Compton school police authorized to carry AR-15 assault rifles [SCPR]