Yesterday, President Obama acted to restrict the Defense Department and other federal agencies from providing military equipment to local police departments. In essence, the President adopted, by Executive Order, the Grayson Amendment that I introduced last year in the House of Representatives. My amendment was defeated, but shortly thereafter, we all saw militarized police occupy the streets in Ferguson, Missouri. Live and learn. I thank the President for adopting my amendment. It will help us take a giant step back from the militarization of Main Street, and let us remain the Land of the Free, as well as the Home of the Brave.
Ferguson made the difference, changing attitudes and changing minds. Who can forget what it looked like to see an American community occupied by paramilitary police forces, in military vehicles, pointing military weapons at innocent Americans? It looked like a nightmare. And the fact that in Ferguson, it was a largely white police force deploying military weapons against a largely black community made it even worse.
Our Founding Fathers were concerned about militarized police. The Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the quartering of troops in people’s homes. From the very beginning, we have established and maintained a clear line between police and military forces. In the 1870′s the Posse Comitatus Act confirmed the fundamental principle that our armed forces operate outside of our borders, and the police operate within.
The result has been peace and security, in the lives of ordinary Americans. Apart from the Japanese occupation of part of the remote Aleutian Islands in Alaska during World War II, no foreign forces have occupied this country since the War of 1812, when British soldiers burned my present workplace, the Capitol, to the ground. The two-century absence of military forces from our streets is an enormous accomplishment that few other countries have matched. It’s the foundation of American prosperity, and a fundamental tenet of our freedom. We live in peace, and therefore we can do great things. That’s America. Having a military or paramilitary presence in our streets is, in a fundamental sense, un-American.
The militarization of American police is recent. The Section 1033 Program authorizes the free transfer of military equipment, including tanks, missiles, machine guns and weaponized drones, both new and used, to local police forces. For many years, it was tiny. In 1990, the DoD gave only $1 million in military equipment to local police authorities. In 2013, the amount was almost $450 million.
The mission of our police is to serve and protect, not unnerve and disrespect. We have a delicate balance in the United States between public authority and individual rights. Every time that we occupy a neighborhood with military force, not only are we attacking those who threaten mischief, but also those who are innocent.
Whenever we militarize the police, we run the risk of igniting a spiral of violence between the police and the populace. In a sense, it has already started. Last year, police officers killed 623 Americans. Contrast that with the United Kingdom, where in the last 10 years, officers killed only 20 people - even in the aftermath of the civil war in Northern Ireland.
Demilitarization will make police officers safer as well. Police officers have told me that the friction between them and the general public makes their job very difficult. Some of them have stopped wearing clothes or insignia that identify them as officers when they are off-duty. By presenting a friendly face toward the innocent public, the police can turn to them for help, and at the same time, feel safer themselves.
The President has taken a solid first step toward unwinding the cycle of violence. But the underlying program that the President has throttled back still exists. The Department of Defense still has the legal authority to buy and deliver military equipment to police forces. What one President stops, another one can re-start.
I’ll be introducing my amendment again this year, and I’m hoping for wide, bipartisan support. If freedom means anything, it means that our streets are not war zones.