Monday, August 25, 2014

What Could Go Wrong?

Among the visuals from Ferguson, perhaps none are as deeply disturbing as Michael Brown lying in the middle of Canfield Drive for over four hours while the law enforcement bureaucracies of Ferguson and St. Louis sorted out their respective responsibilities.  But, grimly, what may be even more the cause of both demonstrations and national soul-searching are the images of members of Ferguson’s police threatening the populace with an array of weaponry seemingly sufficient to start a medium-sized war.

In the proverbial long sad history of bad ideas, a place of some honor probably belongs to Washington’s decision in 1990 to escalate the war on drugs by making surplus military hardware available to law enforcement agencies at little or no cost.  Why not?  Equipment is required to fight a war, and who would argue using what’s available where it will do the most good?  Leave aside any quibbles about the lack of similarities between fighting insurgents in the Middle East and dope dealers in East St. Louis.

The 1990 initiative was modified in 1997, becoming Department of Defense Program 1033, still intended to make use of gear that otherwise would sit in some warehouse like toys in an attic, unused and unloved.  The reduction in troops in Iraq and then Afghanistan only increased the amount of battlefield hardware available.  (Even allowing for the weaponry inadvertently lost to the Islamic State jihadis and now being triumphantly paraded through the streets of Mosul.)

Since 1997, a total of $5.1 billion worth of this gear has been given to every state of the union, including $450 million in 2013 alone to some 8,000 different agencies.  Just since 2006, the results of this government giveaway have been remarkable.  Placid Middletown in Connecticut is the new home of a 24-ton, $733,000 mine-resistant, assault protected vehicle certain to be useful in the event of the town’s first roadside bomb or disturbances by Wesleyan’s students. Oconee County in South Carolina (pop. 74,273) scored 38 assault rifles, an armored vehicle and a helicopter.  Yolo County, California can boast one assault rifle per 450 residents, or about one half a rifle for every violent crime reported in the county in 2008.  Out in paradise, Honolulu received three mine-resistant vehicles, although being an island, perhaps mine-resistant vessels would have been more appropriate.  Front and center Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and New Mexico.  Every single county in each of these states scooped up at least one aircraft, one armored vehicle, one set of body armor, one grenade launcher, or one assault rifle.

Far surpassing even this extravaganza is the Department of Homeland Security’s funding since 2001, some $34 billion, to local police forces for the purchase among other baubles of a drone (Montgomery County, Texas), a remote-controlled, crime-fighting blimp (Ogden, Utah), and a tank (not surprisingly, the latter the responsibility of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio whose arsenal also includes 120 assault rifles, 5 armored vehicles and 10 helicopters).  

What appears to be at work here is the notion that the way to prevent crime is by the ostentatious display of overwhelming power to counter any threat. Or, to reverse the cliché, bringing a gun to any knife fight.  In warfare, this probably makes sense.  On the streets of Ferguson or any other place with unarmed citizens, not so much.  Peter King, Republican Congressman from New York, would differ.  He says he sees no connection between police weaponry and what happened in Ferguson and disagrees with anyone suggesting, “that somehow the police are the cause of what’s wrong.”  Well, no.  For the most part, members of law enforcement do an admirable and necessary job under difficult and often dangerous conditions.  Putting in their hands the military gear a third world country could use to invade a neighboring state is counter-productive.  And wrong. 


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