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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Police Militarization

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large

Well, friends, I saw something that confused me so much I had to read it three times to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. But I hadn’t. There was actually an article in the August 31 edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal that said several politicians are “pushing to scale back the 1033 program.”

The Defense 1033 Excess Property program puts surplus military equipment into the hands of state and local governments for free. For police purposes, those items often include armored personnel carriers, body armor, weapons, and yes, helicopters. The most popular aircraft frames are UH-1s and OH-58s, with the primary applications being SAR and patrol, respectively.

So, what’s wrong with giving some old, ugly, airworthy helicopters retirement jobs? According to the article, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said that civilian law enforcement agencies equipped with military-grade equipment and weapons “creates a recipe for havoc, and we saw that,” he said, “unfold in Ferguson [Mo.]. We simply have to put the brakes on the program.”


In fact, Johnson plans to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives that would limit the program and prohibit the acquisition of automatic weapons, armored vehicles and aircraft by state and local entities. His argument, and the argument of quite a few other politicians who are onboard with this, is that the police response to the unrest in Ferguson after the shooting of an unarmed teenager included officers using military vehicles, body armor and weaponry – a sight he and many citizens found offensive, probably because it evoked images of a dictatorship unleashing its military might upon the citizenry. But public service – even when done correctly – isn’t always pretty. In fact, it can be terribly ugly on its face.

What I can’t figure out is why Johnson wishes to lump helicopters in with the things he finds offensive and distasteful. If it’s about appearances, the first thing most police departments do when they receive a 1033 aircraft is to paint it something less military looking. And while I can see how a turret-mounted weapon atop of an armored car can look super-offensive on a suburban street, 1033 helicopters come with about as much weaponry as a Robinson R22.

What’s so offensive about a former Army Huey that now lowers its line to rescue a critically injured hiker? Are OH-58s so off-putting that parent’s don’t want them looking for their lost child? Are lawmakers actually ready to let fleeing felons evade capture because it looks bad to chase them with the same kind of helicopter used by the Army’s 101st Screaming Eagles 25 years ago?

I know what’s going on with Johnson’s proposed legislation. It’s the shotgun approach. While trying to soothe the feelings of citizens who feel uneasy when heavily armored vehicles and helmeted officers with assault weapons come into the neighborhood, he’s going to take out the only tool that gives us a decisive advantage over criminals: The helicopter – the one thing that the 95 percent of all U.S. law enforcement agencies wish they had access to, but can rarely afford.

The most extreme recommendation being passed around is to get rid of the 1033 program altogether, leaving governments to purchase whatever they need from commercial sources at market prices. (As if that automatically makes the item purchased less offensive.) The least extreme measure is to require the voting public to decide what will and what won’t be acquired under 1033. But the thrust of the extremes, and all of the options in between, is to take such acquisition decisions out of the hands of police officials.

Frankly, I don’t know if Johnson’s idea will gain any further traction, including from the manufacturers of new stuff that agencies are currently getting for free through the program. And I suppose some angry citizens who want us to go back to carrying revolvers and sharing one squad car with Andy and Barney could get behind it. But my guess is that the program will continue, though I just don’t feel confident enough about that to bet any money on it.

If you’re thinking about acquiring surplus helicopters, keep an eye on this. If you already have surplus helicopters, I suggest painting them a delightful shade of pink, so they’ll look cute and less offensive.


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