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West Springfield police had to give up their grenade launchers

Back in the summer of 2014, the ACLU of Massachusetts published a report about the militarization of the police. Based off of publicly available materials and documents obtained from government agencies through the public records process, the report found that Massachusetts police departments had acquired some highly unusual military equipment. The West Springfield police department, for example, got two grenade launchers from the US military. Fewer than 30,000 people live in West Springfield.

That same year, the national ACLU released its own report about police militarization. And just a few months later, the world watched in horror as protesters on the streets of Ferguson were confronted with tanks and sniper rifles.

The public debate around the militarization of the police led the Obama administration to issue new rules governing which kinds of weapons could be transferred from the Department of Defense to state and local cops. No longer would law enforcement agencies be allowed to receive, gratís, things like grenade launchers or tracked armored vehicles.

The new rules didn’t go far enough, but they trimmed the most ridiculous excesses of the 1033 program, which allows state and local police to acquire old military equipment for the cost of shipping it. Thanks to Obama’s changes, police departments in Massachusetts have had to give back some of their toys. The West Springfield police department no longer has two grenade launchers. Additionally, the Norfolk police and state Department of Corrections both gave back tracked vehicles, and the Clinton cops returned 27 bayonets.

Police in Norfolk don’t seem too concerned about having to give their armored vehicle back to the feds. The department is part of a regional SWAT effort called MetroLEC, which has an armored personnel carrier called a BearCat. That’s just one example of how, while the new regulations on military transfers to police are a step in the right direction, they alone won’t fundamentally change the culture of militarization at police departments nationwide. 

That’s because police can obtain militarized police equipment through other programs, including federal grants from the DOJ and DHS. It’s also because equipment is just one part of the police militarization problem. The other is policy.

As records obtained by the ACLU show, police militarization is largely driven by the war on drugs. While it’s great that the West Springfield police don’t have grenade launchers anymore, this victory won’t put a dent in the routine police practice of sending militarized police into people’s homes in the middle of the night to look for drugs. Obama’s equipment rules don’t address night-raids or no-knock warrants, or the use of SWAT teams to serve them. 

So while President Obama’s recommendations and the ensuing equipment transfers are a step in the right direction, we’ve got a lot more work to do if we want our police to act like public servants instead of war fighters. Of primary importance in that work is moving from rhetoric to action on the war on drugs, and ending it once and for all. After all, if we don’t want our police to act like soldiers, we should stop treating the bulk of their work like a war.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.