War Comes Home to Virginia

By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications

 “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight. Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyperaggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”

 This is the finding of a national ACLU report on the militarization of policing in America. The report creates a disturbing image of modern law enforcement – where the line between serving the public and viewing residents as the enemy is increasingly blurred . . . where weapons designed for the battlefield increasingly are deployed in our communities.

While the report, which focused primarily on SWAT teams, did not include Virginia specific examples of the national trends, what we already know about the deployment of military hardware to local Virginia law enforcement departments makes the relevance of the report’s findings clear.  As NBC 12 reported last month, “Virginia police are quietly stocking up on millions of dollars in leftover military equipment. . . . [And] have been doing this for the better part of two decades.” This stockpiling of military equipment is made possible through a Department of Defense program that gives away its unwanted or out of commission items to local police and through a grant program set up by the Virginia Attorney General’s office using millions from a Medicaid fraud settlement that the AG chose to spend on law enforcement.  These programs have facilitated the transfer of a broad range of equipment to local law enforcement departments, including mine resistant vehicles, grenade launchers, and hundreds of military style rifles. (NBC 12 compiled a list of equipment transferred by the DoD – click here). As our Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga told NBC 12, “[t]hese law enforcement folks are essentially turning themselves into paramilitary operations in a circumstance in which no citizen has had any opportunity to say whether that’s what they want their police force to look like[.]”

The report also found that “use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color; when paramilitary tactics were used in drug searches, the primary targets were people of color[.]” From marijuana arrests in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, to stops and frisks in Charlottesville, we know that communities of color are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement in Virginia. While we cannot be sure that this national trend has crossed the Virginia border, the disproportionality concerns in the enforcement of Virginia’s criminal laws make this national finding very troubling for the Commonwealth. As we’ve written before, it’s time for Virginia’s lawmakers to reform our broken criminal justice system (including law enforcement weapons and tactics) – to recognize and fix a system that, as Sen. Rand Paul recently stated, fills prisons with “black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, [and] it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs.”

Whether its tanks, grenade launchers, drones, or automatic license plate readers, it’s time for Virginians to reassert our authority – to reign in the use of military hardware on our streets and ensure that technology is used to make us both safe and free. Decisions such as whether to obtain a tank must be made in an open and transparent process that includes the voices of the community. And, as the Town of Ashland recently showed us all, we know that this is possible!

As we noted above, a substantial amount of money was made available to local law enforcement through a Virginia Attorney General grant program established using $105 million from a $115 million settlement from the national Medicaid fraud investigation against Abbott Laboratories. It appears that the Attorney General’s office had a great deal of discretion over how to spend these dollars, such as on mental health treatment or services for Virginia’s seniors. Check back for more details on this . . . .

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