This past week I have watched both the print and television media’s response to the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots in Ferguson. For the first time, the mainstream media has finally started to question the militarization of law enforcement and its impact on our communities. My question is: What took you so long? The actions taken by local law enforcement may be surprising to many, but not to us at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who have worked since 2002 to reverse the damage caused by the War on Drugs. One of our guiding principles has been to restore the public’s respect for law enforcement, which has been greatly diminished by incidents such as this.
It is our nature to want to blame someone for what occurred. But this blame is multi-faceted and should also fall squarely at the federal governments’ doorstep. Ferguson is the inevitable consequence of a bad policy that incentivizes local law enforcement to adopt the federal governments’ misguided war on drugs. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 1033 program started in the early 1990’s in an effort to channel excess military equipment to state and local police through the Department of Defense (DOD). The implementation of the 1033 program was designed as a well-intentioned plan to help the cops keep up with what was perceived as the growing threat of gangs and drug dealers in the US. But in doing so, it blurred the law enforcement mission and did so without thought of the detrimental effect on the impact of the essential relationship needed between local law enforcement and their constituents in collaborating to enhance public safety.
The militarization of law enforcement occurred when we crossed the drug war Rubicon and decided that making war on our communities was acceptable in an effort to eliminate drug use in America. In the Wonk Blog, journalist Christopher Ingraham discussed the link between the federal government issuing excess military equipment to law enforcement by noting that “The act gives preference to “those applications indicating that transferred property will be used for counter-drug…activities of the recipient agency.” The equipment given to local law enforcement was worth half a billion dollars last year.
It was surprising to hear Attorney General Eric Holder make this statement without accepting that the federal government itself had contributed to the problem:
“At a time when we seek to rebuild the trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
I would remind the Attorney General that the federal government has caused the militarization of our local law enforcement by giving them things like grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers and assault weapons to name just a few pieces of military hardware authorized (see this great interactive map for what’s in your state) under the 1033 program.
Holder’s comments although laudable do not give the federal government a free pass. Civil libertarians have long questioned the influence of federal legislation on state and local law enforcement through a system of fiscal incentives that include free military grade equipment, asset forfeiture, categorical and block grants — which can only be used for defined purposes that meet federal drug policy goals. Indeed, in the area of law-enforcement policy, the federal government influences all states with policy initiatives tied to an over-reaching national policy thus distorting state and local law enforcement policing strategies.
So if the DOJ and the federal government is really interested in repairing the relationship between law enforcement and its communities, it’s time for the government to accept responsibility for the harms that their drug policy incentives have helped to create. Ferguson is clearly a by-product of the escalation of tensions between communities that now see the police as occupiers and for the police that believe that they are dealing with enemy combatants.
I would suggest that our towns don’t need tanks; we need peace officers that are willing to engage, collaborate, and serve their communities. So I would ask that just like Governor Nixon of Missouri reframed Ferguson by de-escalating the use of heavy-handed policing tactics, maybe it’s time for the federal government to de-escalate its one-size-fits-all drug policy that has helped to contribute to the diminished respect between law enforcement and its constituents by ending the drug war and all its components including the 1033 program.