How to make your local police like the military

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How to make your local police like the military


© B Christopher/Alamy

Do your local police have problems with protests? Do you need some military Humvee vehicles or guns from the US Department of Defense? Call 1 800 532 9946. That’s the phone number – and this is not a joke - for the Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO. This is the government plan for giving out extra military equipment to police around the country.

The office has a motto ‘From fighting war to fighting crime’, and they have a video to explain. If you follow the instructions, you can get lots of things that the army does not need: coffee machines, office folders, almost-new M79 grenade launchers and helicopters (used in Afghanistan). You only have to fill in a one-page form.

Again, this is not a joke.

Many things can go wrong with this system. And many things did go wrong August in Ferguson, Missouri, St Louis. There was a protest because the police shot an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown. The police were ready for war. It was like a war with the majority black population as the enemy. Many photos of police in body armour and camouflage firing teargas, driving mine-resistant vehicles and pointing guns at protesters and journalists were shown around the world.

It’s not often that people say anything is ‘too military’ in the United States. But many people have said that about what the police did in Ferguson. Many different writers and politicians are worried that the police are become too much like the military.

There are more militarized police groups now, and they are becoming more racial. It started with the creation of SWAT teams after the urban protests of the 1960s. It grew in the ‘war on drugs’ in the 1980s and 1990s, (mostly against African-American communities). And now, it’s growing again because of anti-terrorism money after the 9/11 attacks.

In 2013, the LESO gave more than $449 million of equipment to police groups. But the Pentagon programme gives only a small part of the total money for police to fight.

It is now common to have peaceful protesters at big business or political meetings with a lot of security.

There was one demonstration before 9/11 outside the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund with hundreds of police in riot clothes marching near the protest. When one group marched past, everyone started singing the music of the Imperial March from Star Wars.

But there were many arrests and force used by police against protesters.

The organisers of the meetings said they needed all the security to protect important politicians. But this argument cannot explain how all police now think they are military.

Some people say we should not only look at police militarization in Ferguson. Michael Brown was shot at least six times with a normal police handgun. He did not die because of too many guns in the Pentagon. FBI statistics show that almost twice per week in the period between 2005 and 2012, a police officer killed a black person somewhere in the US.

We should not look at separate events. We should understand the militarization of police as something that is happening, linked to discrimination, information about race, and putting big groups of people in prison. But we should be worried about this, and fight against it.

Maybe we should call LESO to say we are worried?

Mark Engler, from Foreign Policy In Focus, is writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. His website is:

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