The inevitable outcome is the sort of spectacle that occurred in Ferguson, Mo., before the protests there turned violent: heavily armed police in battle gear more suitable for Iraq than a small American city. Police militarization fosters an "us vs. them" mentality that can alienate the very communities that officers are supposed to serve.
Unquestionably, police sometimes need military gear. A case in point is the 1997 incident in Los Angeles when two bank robbers, outfitted with body armor and automatic assault rifles, terrorized civilians and outgunned police for almost 45 minutes until officers obtained heavier weapons from a nearby gun store.
But incidents like that are rare, and there's growing resentment of police employing heavy-handed tactics in situations that call for a lighter touch.
Examples include a series of raids on Orlando-area barber shops in 2010 that resulted mostly in arrests for "barbering without an active license." One of the worst recent excesses was a "no-knock" drug raid in May on a home near Atlanta, where police in SWAT gear launched a flash-bang grenade that landed in a crib, severely burning a 19-month-old boy. Police found no drugs and arrested no one. An ACLU report found that these tactics are disproportionately used against blacks and other minorities.
Why have police gone the military route? It dates to the riots of the 1960s, attacks on police by radical groups in the 1970s, and the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s. Then came the war on terror. The fear that al-Qaeda could attack anywhere led even small cities to want military-grade protection. Keene, N.H., used the possibility of terror attacks to justify acquiring a $286,000 BearCat armored vehicle to protect its annual Pumpkin Festival, among other events.
This might seem comical, but taxpayer money is fueling the militarization. Congress created a grant program through the Department of Homeland Security that has doled out more than $7 billion to cities such as Keene.
Congress also authorized the Pentagon to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the so-called 1033 Program. That's how police in Neenah, Wis., acquired an MRAP, a 30-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle originally designed to survive roadside bombs in war zones.
It's time for the Obama administration and Congress to scale back the arms spree. Transfers of military equipment should come with stricter conditions on training and use. Police departments need better standards for when and how to deploy heavy weapons and SWAT tactics.
Trust and respect go a long way toward making police officers' job easier, something that can get lost when law enforcement seems more like an occupying force than cops on the beat.