Editorial: Don’t remilitarize law enforcement

The Detroit News

President Donald Trump has made a point to express his support for the nation’s men and women in blue, as he should. But that support should always be balanced against Americans’ civil liberties.

Trump is rolling back restrictions former President Barack Obama had put in place on police departments’ ability to access military-grade equipment, such as bayonets, tanks, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and drones.

Police departments complain cutting them off from surplus equipment left them ill prepared to deal with increasingly well-armed criminals, and to terrorist attacks.

There’s some validity to that claim. But there is also a legitimate concern about militarizing civilian law enforcement agencies with equipment that has no place on city streets, and could fall into the wrong hands. Oversight of the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which supplied excess materials to police, must not be abandoned.

The Government Accountability Office recently pretended to be a fake police department and, due to the lack of oversight or knowledge by the Defense Department about where the equipment was going, was able to acquire $1.2 million worth of military gear.

“It was like getting stuff off of eBay,” said a GAO staffer who ran the operation.

Risings tensions between police departments and communities throughout the country led Obama to institute stronger restrictions on what materials could be given to law enforcement, and create a system for tracking the equipment.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions described citizen concerns about the weaponry as “superficial.”

The concerns aren’t superficial. Police acquisition of military-grade equipment makes departments more violent, according to a study conducted earlier this year by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Cincinnati and Gardner-Webb universities.

It found that after receiving gear from the Pentagon, police departments were more likely to kill civilians as well as dogs. (Researchers included dog killings to compare that to killings of people and control for possible variations in human behavior during violent interactions.)

Police are public servants charged with protecting communities of citizens; they’re not supposed to be soldiers at war with those communities.

There are legitimate reasons departments need armored tanks. Potential terrorist attacks, mass shootings and even natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey call for aggressive protection of law enforcement. But use of that equipment should be restricted, and not deployed during daily interactions.

Other materials like Stingray cell phone trackers are purchased using terrorism grant money. But they’re commonly used for routine law enforcement investigations and as a means to get around warrant requirements.

No one wants police officers to be in greater danger than they are by nature of their jobs. But nor do we want them to become paramilitary forces.

The restrictions on the purchase of military equipment should not be rolled back wholesale. Departments should have to make a very good case for why they need the material, and how they will ensure it is not abused.