by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director
(As originally published in The Loudoun Times)
Ferguson, Mo. has brought the issue of militarization of law enforcement to our living rooms. Every night we see the images – police in military style clothing, pointing military style rifles at people (something even the military doesn’t do unless they are preparing to shoot), standing on top of military grade armored vehicles. It’s unfortunate that it took an event like Ferguson to bring the militarization of U.S. law enforcement to public attention. It’s time we address this dangerous trend, and we can start at the state and local level.
First, how did we get here? The militarization of our law enforcement is, to a large extent, a product of our failed war on drugs. Under a U.S. Department of Defense program established in the 1990s, the DoD gives military equipment to local law enforcement departments, with transfer preference given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations. The catch? The equipment must be used in one year, or must be returned. Quite a perverse incentive – here’s a tank and assault rifles, use them in the next year or give them back, regardless of whether you need to or not. In addition, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security have established funding programs that further enable the militarization of local law enforcement. Law enforcement officers should be focused on ensuring public safety, and not meeting federal program requirements that double down on the failed war on drugs or provide false security in the War on Terror.
What can we do to stop this? At the local and state level there are a number of opportunities.
Residents should demand that law enforcement obtain approval from their local elected government before obtaining military grade weapons and materials or surveillance equipment. According to records published in the New York Times, Loudoun County has received 41 night vision pieces, but its neighboring counties in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland have been much more involved in the DoD program, including receipt of approximately 150 military assault rifles and an armored vehicle. Law enforcement should be forced to defend these decisions – why do they need a tank, assault rifles, drones or a grenade launcher to keep our neighborhoods safe? Residents should be involved in deciding what kind of law enforcement they want and expect in their communities – public safety agencies or military style organizations conducting a domestic war at home.
Like many Virginia law enforcement departments, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has a SWAT team. SWAT teams were first developed to provide a necessary service – to react to an active shooter or other instance involving an imminent, violent threat to public safety where regular law enforcement officers lack the training necessary to react. But, we’ve gone from 3,000 SWAT actions a year in the 1980s to approximately 45,000 a year by the mid-2000s. This is the result, in part, from a shift in mission – from reacting to imminent, violent threats to serving warrants in low level drug cases. And, this has occurred without proper oversight. Virginia doesn’t require law enforcement agencies to collect and make public data on stops, stops and frisks or SWAT deployments. Unlike Wisconsin, there is no law requiring objective review of police use of force resulting in death. The General Assembly should require all law enforcement agencies to collect and make public basic information about policing and its consequences in order to ensure accountability and transparency and to allow residents and legislative bodies to make informed decisions about the operations and effectiveness of their law enforcement agencies.
Finally, it’s time to end the war on drugs – it’s ineffective and disproportionately impacts communities of color. Recently, the Loudoun-Times Mirror looked at drug arrests and public safety in Chesterfield and Loudoun counties. It criticized Loudoun’s lower number of arrests for drug crimes. Between 2010 and 2013 (the last year of complete data), it is true that Chesterfield arrested between two and three times as many people for drugs as did Loudoun. While Loudoun and Chesterfield have similar population sizes, however, Chesterfield has a crime rate that is almost double that of Loudoun. So the suggestion in the editorial that increased drug enforcement leads to decreased crime didn’t prove true in Chesterfield. The real truth is that, as is the case across Virginia, Loudoun’s enforcement of drug laws has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Despite the fact that whites and African Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Loudoun County. If we really want to reduce the use of drugs then we should look to what works. The evidence is clear that treatment programs are more effective than incarceration.
President Nixon declared the war on drugs over 40 years ago. What has this $1 trillion war achieved? Jails full of non violent offenders, racial disparities in arrests and incarceration, little to no effect on the supply of drugs, and militarized police forces. It’s time to end this failed war. It’s time to bring transparency, accountability and evidence-based law enforcement back to our communities.
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