WASHINGTON, DC — Warning that the use of military equipment by civilian police often begets unnecessarily aggressive tactics and over-enforcement, a national bipartisan coalition including constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead is calling on the Obama administration to demilitarize America’s police forces. The White House estimates that federal programs directly or indirectly provided $18 billion in military equipment to state, local and tribal police between 2009 and 2014, much of it with little oversight on who was receiving the gear or follow-up on how it was being used.
The coalition’s recommendations, compiled and published by The Constitution Project, are outlined in its report, “Demilitarizing America’s Police: A Constitutional Analysis,” which is available at www.rutherford.org and on The Constitution Project’s website.
“There are many examples of countries where police are not armed and dangerous, and they are no worse off for it. Indeed, their crime rates are low and their police officers are trained to view every citizen as precious,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The problem is not that police are in any greater danger than before. Rather, by dressing as warriors, they are acting like warriors and increasing the danger inherent in every police encounter.”
In the aftermath of the public outcry over local police using tank-like vehicles and assault rifles to quell protests in Ferguson, Missouri last year, the Obama administration placed a modest ban on the transfer of some military-grade equipment—including tracked armored vehicles, .50 caliber firearms and grenade launchers—from the Pentagon to state and local police. In July 2016, the heads of eight national law enforcement organizations met with the president and the vice president to ask them to relax the ban. Obama promised to have his White House counsel look at the issue.
In response, The Constitution Project’s Committee on Policing Reform, a group comprising former law enforcement and military officers, prosecutors, judges, and experts in criminal law—including John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute—released its report, “Demilitarizing America's Police: A Constitutional Analysis.” The report calls on the president to place additional tactical and military equipment, such as flash bang grenades and long range acoustical devices, on the list of prohibited items, and to require law enforcement agencies seeking to acquire other military gear to demonstrate it would be used only in limited circumstances.
Among its 25 recommendations, the coalition urged the Obama administration to adopt a requirement that any police force wanting to receive items on the controlled equipment list should first have to show evidence of approval of its acquisition from the appropriate civilian governing body, such as a governor or a city council. In addition, the group urged the administration to require the collection and public disclosure of detailed data on the use of military equipment for tactical purposes, as well as the deployment of SWAT teams, for any state or local police force seeking to acquire military equipment. The report details the ways in which the increased use of military equipment and tactics undercuts the duty to protect the constitutional rights and values that law enforcement officers have sworn to uphold—specifically those guaranteed by the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.