Military Gear, Local Policing, and the Carceral State

Authored By 
Philip McHarris
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
December 7, 2015

The militarization of local policing - that is, providing local police departments with equipment that is typically reserved for military combat - sparked national attention when local police utilized gear acquired through federal initiatives to aggressively suppress the uprising in Ferguson that emerged in response to the murder of Michael Brown. Images of local police wielding assault rifles, riding in MRAPs, and deploying tear gas against protestors caused outrage and in response activists and journalists sought to uncover how local police departments like the Ferguson Police Department had access to military-grade weaponry and equipment. Executive order 13688, issued in May 2015, sought to curb the militarization of local police agencies, but will prove to have little effect on dismantling the arsenals that local police forces have built — and continue to build — through federal initiatives. 

Scores of articles emerged detailing the federal initiatives that made the militarization of local police possible, with a focus on the 1033 Program - a federal initiative which provides direct transfers of surplus US military equipment that began in the 1990s to build the capacity of local police to engage in drug enforcement activities and was broadened to be aimed at all crime enforcement activities. In response of pressure from protestors, journalists, and organizations focused on civil liberties, the Department of Defense released detailed data on the items transferred to individual police departments. We now know that well over 1 million items were transferred over the course of the 1033 program, which include military equipment such as assault rifles, rifle sights, and rounds of ammunition, as well as MRAPs, grenade launchers, and aircraft.

A review conducted by the Executive Office of the President was published in December of 2014, which examined the federal initiatives that provide funding or direct transfers of military equipment and found that nearly 18 billion dollars of equipment was transferred during 2009 through 2014 alone. The report revealed that federal initiatives had been responsible for the funding or transfer of 92,442 small arms, which include assault rifles, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 high mobility, multi-purpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), 617 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs), and 616 aircraft.
In May 2015 the President announced that new restrictions by way of Executive Order 13688 would be placed on the transfer and funding of the acquisition of military equipment by local police that blocks items such as tracked armored vehicles, rifles with bayonets, and grenade launchers and requires more training and documentation around the use of the gear.

But these bans do not even scratch the surface of dismantling the arsenals that local police have built in the last four decades that have allowed them to engage in excessive and violent activities, particularly towards Black, Latino/a, and immigrant communities across the United States. The militarization of local police is part and parcel of the development of the contemporary Carceral State in the United States. Scholars have located the origins of the Carceral State in the mid-1960s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Yale political scientist Vesla Weaver has argued that in fact, the development of the Carceral State begins as a frontlash to the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

Over the past four decades the United States has developed a fascination with punishment and has engaged in perhaps the greatest policy experiment of the 20th century: mass incarceration. Amplified during times of perceived crises of crime and disorder, such as the War on Drugs, federal initiatives facilitated the expansion of the punitive arm of the state by funding and transferring equipment to local police to engage in unprecedented surveillance and arrest.

While not all of the initiatives provided gear solely reserved for military use, federal initiatives funneled funding and/or equipment that built the infrastructure of local police to engage in mass surveillance and arrest while federal and state government money funded the construction of prisons at the same time when funding for welfare, public education, and social services experienced continuous expenditure cuts. As the War on Drugs generated hysteria, the federal government, as well as state governments, accelerated its involvement in augmenting local US police departments’ capacity to surveil and arrest.

As activists across the country continue to push for an end to police violence and the redistribution of funds from local police expenditures into their communities, the Federal government should take immediate steps to ending its role in expanding the capacity for police to engage in violent ways through the funding and transfer of military equipment. Furthermore, while the recent restrictions and requirements issued by Obama’s Executive Order 13688 is a step in the right direction and will limit the transfer of certain items that are undoubtedly excessive, as it stands local police departments will still remain heavily militarized with items that were not banned and the Executive Order cannot guarantee that the training and documentation around use will stymie the aggressive and excessive violence that has appeared across the country when local police have access to military-grade gear. Moreover, training requirements leave too much room for variation in application and oversight.

Local police departments have been able to expand their capacity to engage in aggressive enforcement and excessive violence through expenditure increases and the transfer of gear and equipment from the federal government. Stopping police violence will inevitably require the dismantling of the Carceral state and the arsenals that were developed to build it.

Philip McHarris is a joint PhD student in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University, and a Graduate Policy Fellow at ISPS. His research interests lie at the intersection of race/ethnicity, urban sociology, inequality, and the criminal justice system