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Trump’s Decision on Military-Style Weapons Will Harm Communities

Adam Bates

In 2004, then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s SWAT team in Maricopa County,
Ariz., raided a suburban home looking for illegal
firearms.

The raid was a comedy of ineptitude.

The officers drove their armored vehicle into a parked car on
the street. They changed into military-style uniforms on the lawn,
leading a neighbor to conclude that they might have been amateur
paintballers or even gang members. One of the many tear gas
canisters police fired into the home apparently sparked a fire and
set the home ablaze. A dog trying to flee the fire was scared back
into the home, where it died.

Administration should
learn from mistakes of Arpaio. Disastrous SWAT raids added proof
that supplies not only unnecessary, but dangerous.

Instead of a cache of illegal weapons, the raid recovered an
antique shotgun and a legally owned 9mm handgun, and officers made
only one arrest — for a failure to appear in court over
traffic violations.

It should go without saying that military weapons and tactics
should be reserved for the most pressing circumstances. Yet the
Trump administration is taking the country backward by again giving
police departments access to the most dangerous artillery that is
often unnecessary for local officers.

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the
reversal of an Obama-era rule that limits the transfer of certain
military equipment to state and local police agencies.

The Pentagon’s 1033 program has provided military
surplus equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for a
couple of decades. The Obama administration made a slight modification
to the program by banning the transfer of some military equipment
such as high-powered rifles, grenade launchers, bayonets, and some
armored vehicles and camouflage uniforms.

Militarized law enforcement came under intense scrutiny in 2014
after Missouri teen Michael Brown was killed by police officer
Darren Wilson. Police met protesters with tanks, tear gas and
military-grade weapons, escalating an already tense situation.
Observers could have easily been forgiven for mistaking the
officers for occupying soldiers.

One photo from the protest quickly went viral and came to
symbolize the oppressive, dangerous nature of overly militarized
law enforcement. It showed multiple officers in full military gear,
pointing riffles at a young, black male who was holding his hands
in the air. The officers seem to be saying, do what we say or we’ll
kill you.

That kind of military-tinged imagery is exactly what led some
police chiefs to renounce their participation in the weapons
program. Brandon del Pozo of Vermont’s Burlington
Police Department said the equipment was starting to twist the perspectives of his officers:

“We have the resources to handle all but the most
inconceivable public safety scenarios. Amassing a worst-case
scenario arsenal of military equipment results in officers seeing
everyday police work through a military lens. When I realized what
a small role the military played in equipping our police, I
concluded it was better to return the items.”

Del Pozo has his finger on a fundamental question: Can police
departments be flooded with military weaponry and technology
without blurring the distinction between law enforcement work and
military occupation?

The history of SWAT teams, like the one in Maricopa County,
provides an ominous answer.

SWAT teams originated as a response to demanding and dangerous
circumstances such as hostage situations, civil unrest and active
shooters. But as traditional law enforcement goals gave way to the
incentives of the war on drugs, the mission of militarized police
units began to creep. Rather than being reserved for emergency
situations, the vast majority of SWAT raids today result from
search warrants, usually for drugs.

Abuses of military tactics and equipment are inevitable. Police
officers, like all people, respond to incentives.

We can, of course, imagine unlikely scenarios in which the
police might need .50 caliber rifles, but there is a cost to
turning responses to outlandish possibilities into policy
prescriptions. Without adequate transparency, accountability and
training, that cost will continue to be paid in lives.

Adam Bates is a
policy analyst for the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato
Institute.