Rise of the Issue
Since the 1980s, the 1033 Program has allowed police departments to obtain military surplus equipment. However, from .50 caliber weapons to quasi-tanks, some now ask if the police has become too militarized. While police militarization dates back to the 1980s and the 1033 Program, it has a back-and-forth history of some presidents, like Clinton and Trump, strengthening the program and others, like Obama and Biden, weakening it.
The argument of those in favor of demilitarizing the police is that when police have the tools of the military they tend to act like one. Opponents to demilitarization, however, say that it is the job of the police to uphold law and order and argue that police departments should have whatever tools they need to meet this end.
U.S. Informally Adopts 1033 Program
A Reagan era policy to assist the war on drugs provided surplus military equipment to police forces.
1033 Program Is Officially Implemented
Under President Clinton, Reagan’s 1033 Program became the law of the land, operating in 49 states and 4 U.S. territories.
Homeland Security Begins to Allow Anti-Terror Grants
After the attacks on 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security began to allow police departments to apply for grants to purchase military grade weapons to assist in the fight against terrorism.
Police Demilitarization Bill Introduced
Condemning the 1033 Program, a U.S. representative from New York introduced a bill that would eliminate the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments.
Use of Force
While most agree that law enforcement must use force in some circumstances, proponents and opponents of a demilitarized police force disagree over whether there are circumstances where quasi-military action is required.
The police are responsible for maintaining law and order and opponents of demilitarization believe they should be able to use whatever means deemed necessary to promote that. Others however say arming patrol officers with military equipment rather increases the chance of police misconduct.
Proponents of demilitarization argue that when the police have the tools of the military, they will act as though they are the military and not merely a peacekeeping force. Opponents however say that militarization of the police helps them better be able to tackle the violent situations they frequently face.
Demilitarization can reduce violence by the police.
A militarized police force can begin to see their job akin to the military and seek to maintain peace by any means.
A militarized police force can be seen as a presumptive threat.
Just as a person who walks into a store brandishing a firearm is assumed to be a threat, police who show up with quasi-tanks and assault rifles can be seen as threatening, especially to certain categories of the population.
Domestic, militarized forces have led to tragedies and massive loss of life.
Events like Ruby Ridge or Waco, Texas are unlikely to have occurred but for the militarization of law enforcement organizations.
Militarization normalizes a perception of citizens as potential threats.
Many argue that the need for militarization implies viewing citizens as threats so great that they require the use of extreme violence, which creates a society led by fear and insecurity.
A militarized police force is costly to maintain.
Having extensive military grade equipment is costly to the taxpayer, as it demands that the police force expand its budget.
By removing funding for police equipment, departments may use citations as a way to raise money.
Police departments that are used to military equipment may only view demilitarization as a hurdle that can be overcome by raising more money through issuing tickets and citations.
Problems with the police force is one of mentality not equipment.
Because military equipment is otherwise inanimate, simply taking away that equipment will not solve problems with policing.
There are certain circumstances when police need to be able to use weapons and equipment similar to the military.
SWAT teams have been used in the U.S. dating back to the 1960s and have served as a necessary tool to defend against large scale violence and riots.
Removing the necessary equipment from police forces may give rise to vigilantism.
The 1970s and 80s were notorious for a weak police presence which gave rise to popular figures like “Dirty Harry” or other vigilantes. Weakening police now may just cause people with the means to go out and play these roles themselves.
Modeling law enforcement on military organization can increase professionalization.
Some argue that some of the benefits of militarization has been that it has created a police force that is more effective and less prone to corruption.