Privacy SOS

New militarization recommendations a good first step, but we need action on surveillance purchases, too

Cops in Watertown ride on the back of a BearCat in April 2013. Photo: Gabe Camacho.

Citing the ACLU's June 2014 report on police militarization, the White House has issued new recommendations for implementation of Executive Order 13688, "Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition."

The White House calls for the establishment of "prohibited equipment lists," to ban the federal government from buying or donating to police departments equipment like tracked armored vehicles (aka tanks), grenade launchers, and large caliber weapons and ammunition. The recommendations also include the establishment of "controlled equipment lists," to include wheeled armored vehicles (think "BearCats"), explosives or pyrotechnics, riot gear, and specialized weapons. These latter items should not be used in K-12 schools, the White House says, and should only be used by police departments if they provide the federal government with "additional information, certifications, and assurances." Departments that are found to have violated civil rights laws will receive extra scrutiny.

The new rules go beyond limiting what kinds of equipment different agencies may acquire using federal resources. They also require police departments to keep detailed records of how they use such equipment, and report it to the feds. Critically, the White House recommends that this information also be shared with the public.

These recommendations, and a very promising new initiative from the White House pertaining to police data collection practices, constitute a big step in the right direction. But we can't stop here. We need a corollary program to deal with the quiet but perilous expansion of the surveillance state through federal grant programs and joint task force operations. For the past decade plus, the feds have been buying hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of surveillance equipment for state and local police departments, mostly without any public debate or scrutiny. License plate readers, stingray cell phone snooping tools, biometric technology, surveillance cameras, finger print readers, powerful intelligence databases, rapid DNA testing machines, and fusion centers deserve the same level of attention.

With this White House executive order on police military gear acquisitions, we are getting closer to a formal reckoning vis a vis police militarization; we need to get to the same place concerning police spying. Bearcats and tanks in the streets are menacing to democracy, but so is omnipotent, high-tech surveillance. The police response to the Ferguson protests caused a national uproar about militarized cops. But those cops were probably using all manner of surveillance gear purchased with federal funds. Those technologies operate under cover of secrecy, making them perhaps even more dangerous than tanks. It's time to pull the curtain back on this federal surveillance funding bonanza and begin to roll it back.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.