Demilitarization is the process of unraveling the connection between militaristic practices and police actions. Policies in the 1970's and 80's like the ‘War on Crime’ and the ‘War on Drugs’ heightened the need for a weaponized police force, often to the detriment of minority communities.
No-knock warrants authorize law enforcement officials to enter premises without announcing their presence or purpose. These laws were initially introduced in the 1970’s to reduce the ability for drug dealers to get rid of their stashes but were repealed four years later after a series of illegal and violent raids. Supreme Court cases in the 1990’s re-legitimized the practice, once again putting officer and resident safety at risk (St. John’s Law Review). The tragic death of Breonna Taylor and prosecution of her boyfriend Kenneth Walker highlighted that these tactics create volatile situations where suspects experience fight or flight responses that put both the police and the suspect in unnecessary danger.
The Department of Defense's 1033 Program supplies ‘controlled property ( like small arms/personal weapons, demilitarized vehicles/aircraft and night vision equipment) to state and local police officers at virtually no cost. President Obama passed an executive order requiring local departments to return equipment like armored vehicles, grenade launchers (which the department had already stopped transferring to departments), and bayonets. President Trump rescinded this order.
Over one third of current police training focuses on combat tactics (ICJTR). Unlike other training organizations, Blue Courage encourages police officers to lead empathically. "If Blue Courage was adopted by law-enforcement agencies worldwide, we would have less burnout; less escalation of force; and greater respect for the professionals that serve our communities.” (Former Philadelphia Commissioner of Police, co-chair of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing)
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were first developed in the 1960’s to handle active shooter or hostage scenarios that regular police officers shouldn’t have to face. Recently, they have been used primarily in situations where their presence leads to escalation rather than resolution. Though public support for the ‘War on Drugs’ has decreased dramatically, 79% of SWAT deployments studied by the ACLU from 2011-2012 were for the purpose of executing a search warrant, 62% of which were for drug searches. 54% of the people impacted by SWAT deployment were Black or Hispanic. The report notes that “data collecting and reporting in the context of SWAT was at best sporadic and at worst virtually nonexistent”.
In 2014, the police of Bozeman, MT (45,000 residents) requested and received a 17,000 pound armored vehicle known as a BearCat, but it did so without informing the City Commission. Public outcry ensued and the City Council voted to keep the BearCat, but the purchase drew the attention of the Governor and several Republican legislators. In 2015, Montana passed bipartisan legislation that blocks law enforcement agencies from receiving weaponized drones or aircraft, grenades, silencers, and armored vehicles and requires police to notify the public before purchasing (with state/local funds) any item. (The New Republic)
Hopes for the Future
When police officers don’t view their communities as war zones, community relationships improve, residents and cops are put less frequently in volatile situations, and departments no longer rely on military-grade equipment.