Western police are geared up for war

But who’s the enemy?


Over the past three decades, local and state law enforcement agencies have become increasingly militarized, both in approach and equipment, purportedly to fight the so-called wars on drugs and terror. More and more Western counties and towns have special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, teams, and they are more heavily armed than ever before, often with equipment obtained from the Department of Defense. The battlefield-ready equipment, and a mindset to match, have been on display nationwide this spring as law enforcement agencies responded to protests against the killing of Black people by police and against police brutality in general.

The current transformation of police officers into militarized troops has its roots in the National Defense Authorization Act of 1989, which allowed the U.S. military to support civilian law enforcement drug interdiction efforts, and in the subsequent Defense Authorization Act. This included the so-called 1033 Program, which further expanded the sale and donation of military equipment to all law enforcement agencies. After 9/11, the flow of weaponry to civilian agencies ramped up dramatically.

The Portland Police Bureau responds to protests in Portland, Oregon. Increased proliferation of military equipment in a department leads to an increase in police-inflicted violence, even by officers who are not militarily equipped at the time.

Since 9/11, police and sheriffs’ departments, including those in rural Western counties, have acquired arms, ammunition, vehicles, grenade launchers, drones and even helicopters by way of the 1033 Program and grants from the Department of Homeland Security. The armored vehicles present at many of the protests this spring, for example, were likely MRAPs, or mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, valued at about $700,000 each.

In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order restricting the type of gear the 1033 Program could transfer, citing concerns that military equipment in the hands of police can alienate and intimidate local residents. In 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded that order, re-opening the free-flow of ammunition, guns and armored vehicles to police.

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With the growing awareness of the killing of Black citizens by police, underscored by countless incidents of brutality against protesters, calls for reform have reached a crescendo nationwide. One of the many possible suggestions now before Congress is a bipartisan proposal to curtail the 1033 Program. The chance of it getting through the current administration, where Trump has encouraged law enforcement to “look tough” and governors to “dominate” protesters, is slim.

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Meanwhile, Western states — which have some of the highest rates of killings by police — are also some of the biggest recipients of military gear, an indication of how militarized any given agency has become. “Militarization via 1033 is a symptom of the larger rot at the core of the institution of policing,” said Casey Delehanty, assistant professor of political science at Gardner-Webb University. Delehanty co-authored a 2017 study showing that increased proliferation of military equipment fosters a military-style culture in law enforcement, encouraging military-style responses to problems and leading to an increase in police-inflicted violence, even by officers who are not militarily equipped at the time.

Infographic design by Luna Anna Archey; Officer illustrations by Minus Plus. Sources: U.S. Defense Logistics Agency; mappingpoliceviolence.org, U.S. Census estimates, 2019.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.