On Thursday, the House Armed Services Committee will finally hear from the Pentagon's top officials about the use of military force by civilian law enforcement, including clearing Lafayette Square in front of the White House of peaceful protesters to enable a photo op for the president.
It's an overdue reckoning on the damage created by the Pentagon's influence on community policing. Let's hope that the top leaders not only talk about what they regret from that day — Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already stated that he shouldn't have been a part of the photo op — but also take ownership of the role the Pentagon played in getting us here. Cutting the organization's budget is a must for police reform.
Over the past month, peaceful protesters have taken to the streets. Instead of protecting and serving the millions who called for the transformation of law enforcement, many police departments used violence and intimidation. To complete this war-like image, police officers have appeared in head-to-toe military gear alongside armored vehicles and military-grade protections.
The gear itself is a tangible sign of the divide between the police and the people.
Throwing weapons and money at problems — especially without appropriate oversight mechanisms — never makes things better and usually makes things much worse.
Police culture will never change as long as we’re putting military-grade weapons in the hands of individual law enforcement officers. But we’ve been doing just that for so long that the country’s militarized response to protests shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Recently, 23 former homeland and national security leaders signed a letter condemning President Donald Trump’s actions against protesters: “Our laws and time-tested experience carefully delineate the proper roles of civilian and military authorities, including the use of national guard units under the authority of state governors to support police,” the letter reads. “The deployment of active duty military forces must be reserved for the most extreme circumstances, and the mostly peaceful protests across the nation did not warrant such a response.”
As a matter of freedom and safety, it is vital that we take every precaution to ensure that the police do not become a violent or occupying force in our communities.
Unfortunately, decades of bloated Pentagon budgets and war have contributed materially and culturally to the militarization of local police departments across the USA. Armored vehicles are driving down city streets, and combat-ready law enforcement officers are facing off against unarmed protesters as if American citizens are enemies on foreign soil.
The resources and equipment that trickle down from the Pentagon have figuratively, and literally, brought our foreign wars home. Our police now resemble warriors rather than trusted community partners.
The Pentagon program allows for surplus military equipment to be transferred down to local law enforcement agencies. In some cases, local police departments are receiving equipment that has never even been operated by a soldier.
Police violence is a multifaceted, deeply rooted, systemic issue that can’t be resolved with a single solution. However, curtailing Pentagon budgets and reforming ineffective programs like this one are steps that our government can take right now — through legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act moving through Congress. If amended, the legislation could help communities shift away from counterproductive policing tools and free up resources for more effective policies.
The country faces a pivotal moment as Americans grapple with health and economic insecurity and inequality, Washington allocates massive sums of money to address the COVID-19 crisis, and the president proclaims the wars abroad should end imminently. Now more than ever, we cannot continue with wasteful, militarized investments that end up on America's streets while profits line contractors’ pockets. Neither our safety nor our security is served by overspending on ineffective shows of force, whether at the Pentagon or police headquarters. At this moment, it’s clearer than ever that we must reallocate money away from the Pentagon.
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The United States has been presented with an opportunity to seriously assess the militarization of our communities and the disproportionate allocation of government resources. Congress must evaluate the decisions that led us to put so many American lives in danger and start taking action to do better.
Wayne McElrath is a senior investigative adviser to Project On Government Oversight. He also led the Government Accountability Office’s investigation into the Pentagon's 1033 Program, which provides equipment to police departments.
Mandy Smithberger is director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police reform begins with cutting Pentagon money, militarization program