Growing concerns about police militarization in the wake of civil unrest over a police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, are prompting some in Congress to reconsider a program that has for 20 years been arming street cops with the weapons of war.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the first to speak out, writing an op-ed that blamed "big government" as the cause of a "systemic problem with today's law enforcement."
Advertisement - story continues below
He noted there is a difference between a police response and a military one. And he believes the response to protests that followed the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown crossed the line.
"When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands," Paul wrote.
In a case of strange bedfellows, Gun Owners of America and the ACLU are both backing a forthcoming bill from Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., that would curtail the sale of Department of Defense weapons to local police departments.
Carol Swain, a conservative activist who grew up one of 12 children in an impoverished black community in southwest Virginia and now teaches law and government at Vanderbilt University, says she is also worried about police militarization and its effect especially on young black men.
Advertisement - story continues below
She said she is teaching them to change the way they interact with police "just to try to stay alive."
"The best we can do in the short term is have a better response and I think to realize they (police) are the guys with the guns," Swain told WND. "I do see them responding with excessive force. Where maybe if it was a white guy they would have talked with the person but when it's a black guy they were faster to shoot."
Swain has condemned the "lawless behavior" of looters in Ferguson and said they hurt the cause of the peaceful protesters. "If it does anything it generates sympathy for the police," she said.
But that does not explain why the response looked more like a military occupation than a police effort at crowd control.
"I'm wondering why we have the military gear in a number of our communities and some of us have observed the tanks and the military equipment, and it's like, did the government expect to have these kinds of uprisings and now they want us to know they have this equipment?" she added. "It seems like a little bit of overkill."
Advertisement - story continues below
Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement saying he was "deeply concerned" about the message sent whenever local police respond to law enforcement situations with military equipment.
That "concern" rings hollow to those who have observed the steady build-up over the years of military arsenals at police departments across America.
"Eric holder just needs to start saying 'Heil' and he'll be more honest. He's awful," said John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and founder of The Rutherford Institute.
Whitehead said he's been studying the militarization of law enforcement for more than a decade and Holder is part of the problem, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.
Advertisement - story continues below
"The military equipment transfers slowed down a bit under George W. Bush, probably because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan going full tilt, but it has zoomed under Obama's DHS, offering grants for cities to buy Stingray devices, license-plate readers, guns, heavy armored vehicles for towns across the United States," he said.
While alternative media such as WND have been reporting on the militarization of local police since 1997, the mainstream media has been largely silent on the issue until recently.
Ferguson has changed that.
CBS News flashed a headline Friday asking the questions "What can Congress do about militarized police forces?" The report puts the blame squarely on Congress for approving grant programs and free transfers of military equipment to local governments.
Newsweek posted an article headlined "How America's Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program."
So how did it happen?
Not overnight, says Whitehead, who recently penned the book "A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State."
Whitehead said every president since Ronald Reagan shares in the blame for converting America into an emerging police state.
Bill Clinton put 100,000 new cops on the streets of American cities using the federal COPS grant program, which allowed the feds to pay the majority of the salary of new cops. This program has continued under every subsequent president and increases federal control over how local officers are used. Many are now trained by the feds at FBI academies.
But the military surplus program under which the federal government transfers combat-grade equipment to local cities and counties was already under way well before Clinton. It was called the Section 1208 program, started in 1990 under President George Herbert Walker Bush, a program whose name was changed in 1996 to the Section 1033 surplus program.
This program has transferred more than $34 billion worth of military hardware to local cities and towns since 9/11 and more than $459 million was transferred in 2013 alone.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, announced Friday he intends to review the 1033 military surplus program that has been used for decades to arm local cops.
"Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended," Levin said in a statement. “Congress established this program out of real concern that local law enforcement agencies were literally outgunned by drug criminals.
"We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents," he added.
Now, the concern is that this military hardware is going to be used against peaceful, law-abiding Americans. The pictures and video out of Ferguson this week showed heavily armed cops in jungle camouflage roughing up residents, harassing and arresting journalists.
Ferguson Police Department, with a small force of 53 officers, has received more than $500,000 worth of military equipment from the feds, according to reports. They have been seen on the streets wearing heavy body armor, helmets and night-vision goggles. Officers have been perched atop armored Bearcat vehicles, their rifles aimed at the chests of unarmed civilians holding protest signs.
Program escalates under Obama
Fast-forward to 2009 and president Obama steps up the transfers of military gear to America's cities, suburbs and even tiny rural towns.
"So there's a phobia in the Obama administration about this," Whitehead said. "They send out memos all the time about rightwing groups and (sovereign citizen) groups that need to be watched by local law enforcement."
Of course the likelihood of a military-style reaction by a local police department is greater in a large city or nearby town or suburb where large crowds are more likely to gather.
"There is no reason this should have happened to that little town (of Ferguson). The second it did happen the city council should have walked out and said 'you're fired.' The mayor should have walked out and said 'You're not my local police anymore,'" Whitehead said.
The 1033 procurements are not considered public record so it is difficult to trace exactly where the military equipment ends up.
Despite the sudden attention that police militarization has received in the mainstream media, and Levin's comments Friday, the Congress is unlikely to do anything, Whitehead said.
"It depends if it stays on the public memory long. Things move very fast today," he said. "I've been studying militarization for over 10 years, and it's only gotten worse. The police won't tell you what they have, Homeland Security has purchased 1.5 million hollow-point bullets, the Social Security Administration has purchased thousands of rounds and distributed them to communities across America. I think if police do their PR tactics right, and some of them are learning, I think what happened was they weren't smart about how they rolled it out in Ferguson.
"They probably learned their lesson here, on how to use better public relations," he added. "But the point is, this has happened in other places, it just didn't get the coverage, and it's probably going to continue to get worse."
Militarization is 'too profitable'
He said the Obama administration will not do anything to stop the flow of heavy arms to cities, despite its rhetoric, and he doubts the next president will either.
"The corporate elites make too much money off this (militarization)," he said. "You have to follow the money to understand why nothing will get done about this in Washington."
Whitehead said he looks to the NSA spying scandal as an indicator of what will happen with the "outrage" over police militarization.
"You have all this outrage and what has Congress done about it?" he said. "There's just too much money to be made."
As with the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, the sudden barrage of media coverage about police militarization may simply be meant to acclimate people to the "new normal" of an environment that consists of a soft form of martial law.
"Look at the police Stingray devices that go by and swipe everything you're doing off your smartphone or computer and then send that back to the DHS," Whitehead said. "So there are no more local police."
There is no conceivable reason to wear jungle green camouflage in an urban area surrounded with cinder-block gray convenience stores, he said, other than to intimidate.
"I was an infantry officer, that's how I dressed," Whitehead said. "Once they put those outfits on they do change, they start to view us as enemy combatants."
The return of 'Rex 84'
The idea that the U.S. military should assist local cops in containing civil upheaval originated from the Reagan administration, Whitehead said.
"(Dick) Cheney and (Donald) Rumsfeld, yes. The paranoia really started under Reagan with Rex 84 (short for Readiness Exercise 1984) where they were getting ready to fight domestic terrorism," Whitehead said. "I'm 40 years into this stuff, and when I deal with politicians on this issue there is no Republican and Democrat. There really is no rightwing or leftwing. They all go to the same parties. They're all courted by the same groups."
The Rex 84 Program was the military’s plan to impose martial law and intern dissidents and others in an undisclosed number of FEMA camps. The existence of Rex 84 was first revealed during the Iran-Contra Hearings in 1987 and reported by the Miami Herald on July 5, 1987.
The same models have followed under Homeland Security restructuring.
MRAPs cost the American taxpayers $150,000 when purchased for the Army but they are sold to local police departments for $2,000.
"Why are they handing these out to local governments?" Whitehead said. "Friends of mine who are good cops are against this but the police unions are very powerful and they want this equipment."
That's why Whitehead encourages local residents to demand that their city councils form civilian oversight boards that can serve as independent watchdogs over the use of military equipment by their police departments.
"So kick butt at the local level, that's what I'm telling people," Whitehead said. "That's the only way to guard the public's interests in police matters."