I keep thinking about the camouflage. Forget, for a moment, the armored personnel carrier that rumbled into Half Moon Bay on Oct. 19, 2019, ostensibly to protect us during last year’s Pumpkin Festival. Set aside the military rifles slung over sturdy shoulders, the matching boots and helmets, and the apocalyptic lingo that surrounds something like the Sheriff’s Office Terrorism Counter Assault Team.
But why would suburban deputies need to dress in green camo as if they were parachuting into a verdant jungle? Doesn’t the soldier’s uniform make them stand out even more?
The truth is there is no good reason for the gear— only many bad ones. We have equipped this nation’s civilian police agencies with weapons of war as much for affect as effect. And because ISIS has yet to attack Montara, our Sheriff’s Office finds other uses for this grim stuff. As we’ve seen in recent days, in shocking video from Los Angeles to New York, eventually our local armies square off against the very citizens they are sworn to protect with predictable outcomes.
Our police departments aren’t getting military-grade weapons on their own. Congress authorized the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office to equip local authorities with surplus military weapons through the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997. In the 23 years since enactment, local police departments have received $7.2 billion worth of killing machines.
All local governments consider federal money free money, and ours is no different. In 2013 and 2014, LESO shipped two mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPS, valued at $1.4 million, to San Mateo County. This despite the fact that there has never been a mine buried in local roads.
NPR radio reported that between 2006 and 2014, the Pentagon program distributed 79,288 assault rifles, 11,959 bayonets and 205 grenade launchers to local law enforcement agencies, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Ask yourself what a local sheriff’s deputy might do with a bayonet and then go hug your children.
In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded Executive Order 13688, which called for oversight and a protocol prior to federal financing for these weapons of war. Apparently, that was too much to ask of the current administration and of the Fraternal Order of Police, which won the concession as part of its support during the 2016 election.
Do you feel safer as a result? Are police more or less likely to encounter hostility when dressed like human beings or clad as storm troopers? What have we accomplished with tanks and combat knives? Well, look around you.
When San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies climbed out of that MRAP on Main Street that bright October day last fall they did so in the wake of a deadly shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. We were all worried about mass shootings and the target a similar street fair could represent to deranged copycats. The Sheriff’s Office brass reasoned that men and women dressed as soldiers would frighten anyone with bad intent, and if the worst happened, the local army would be on hand.
They were wrong. The state’s occupying force itself is the worst that can happen in a democracy. We are learning that in the streets of America today. Taking military equipment from local police won’t end racism, but it might make it less deadly.