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Police departments still want new military equipment despite calls to 'defund' them

Departments still want their cities to buy the same "tacticool" military gear they did before this summer's protests. And they won't stop until someone makes them.
Image: A protesting crowd with a red overlay in the lower third, police officers lined up in the middle and a mustard color in the upper third
Police departments haven't given up on buying the military equipment they love.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; NYT: Getty

As a kid, I was an avid consumer of comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, which led me to believe that crimes big enough to require a superhero’s intervention — armed bank robberies, hostage situations, potential poisoning of the water supply — were pretty commonplace in any big city.

As I grew up, of course, I learned that this was not the case. And as an adult, I wish police departments across the country would reach that same conclusion. It’s become clear that even after months of protests this summer against police brutality and calls for police department budgets to be scaled back, the cops aren’t listening. And they probably never will, as long as they remain convinced that big-ticket "tacticool" items are absolutely necessary, and that the governments that oversee them won’t take serious action to rein them in.

Jada Williams, a reporter with the local ABC news station in Tallahassee, Florida, tweeted on Thursday morning that the Tallahassee police department was asking the city commission for funds to purchase new handguns for its officers. That’s normal enough, especially since the officers were reportedly using their personal guns as backup weapons. Less normal was the department’s request to purchase a new armored vehicle called “the Rook.”

If you think it looks like a bulletproof bulldozer, you’re not alone. During the city council hearing, Williams reported, police Chief Lawrence Revell held up a picture of a Bobcat bulldozer and said just that. According to its manufacturer, Power Ring, these bad boys start at about $329,000, plus shipping. But that’s if you just want the armored deployment platform, which looks like a two-person shed with holes to shoot through. Depending on which of the many KitchenAid-like attachments you want to add on, which include a grapple claw and a battering ram, the price can go as high as $560,000.

Considering Leon County, home of Tallahassee, reportedly has one of the highest crime rates in Florida, it seems fairly logical to think, “Oh, yeah, that contraption sounds necessary.” But looking at 2019 crime statistics for Leon from Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, it’s hard to pick out incidents where the Rook would have made much of a difference for the 438-person police force.

Depending on which of the many KitchenAid-like attachments you want to add on, which include a grapple claw and a battering ram, the price can go as high as $560,000.

This isn’t to pick on Tallahassee specifically — there are several of these things spread around the state, including in Gainesville and Ocala. But the operations it’s been deployed for so far include punching a hole in a wall to deploy tear gas and punching a hole in a wall to give a phone to a person barricaded inside so they could to talk to officers.

There are definitely some dangerous situations that police have to be involved in, like when someone purchases an assault rifle and fires an AK-47 at officers trying to apprehend them. But instead of encouraging Congress to get these dangerous weapons off the street, police departments come to their municipalities begging for funds to buy things like the Rook or its more traditional peer, the Bearcat.

Since 1997, over $7.4 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies, which only pay for the cost of shipping, in what’s known as the 1033 program. It's part of a trend towards militarization that's taken place in police departments large and small. Among the weapons your average precinct may have on hand these days are flash-bangs, armored cars with .35-caliber ammunition, and MRAPs. This is despite the fact that there are not many recorded cases of improvised explosive devices being laid out for cops in the U.S. that would make an MRAP a wise investment.

There’s actually little evidence that these things are worth the cost to maintain them — and the equipment may actually encourage police officers to act more recklessly. It’s been a debate for over half a decade now, revived more recently after images of armored vehicles built for wars confronting protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, were beamed around the world in 2014.

Democrats' attempts to shield themselves from the stigma of “defund the police” blunts their suggested intermediate steps, rendering them less effective.

A 2018 research paper from Princeton political scientist Jonathan Mummolo concluded that police departments that are armed to the teeth with military-style gear are more frequently deployed in Black neighborhoods, but show no correlating reduction in violent crime or the number of officers that are attacked or killed in the line of duty. Ironically, Mummolo found that the weaponry did lower locals’ trust of the police and made them less willing to fund cops’ initiatives.

It all goes back to the “mindset” problem that Washington Post columnist Radley Balko brought up to NPR’s Terry Gross this summer. “When you're driving this massive sort of hulking vehicle through your town, it makes police officers sort of feel like soldiers or an occupying force,” Balko said. “And for the people, you know, in the community, the police look like an occupying force. And it creates a lot of tension and I think unnecessary animosity between police and the people they're supposed to be serving.”

Regardless of how they’ve been used so far, it’s hard to separate these military-grade acquisitions, especially in Florida, from policies like Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new proposal in response to the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police in late May. The draft bill would cut state funds from local governments that cut law enforcement budgets and expands the state’s “stand your ground” law to allow citizens to potentially shoot protestors who engage in “criminal mischief.”

Image: A demonstrator holds her hands up while she kneels in front of the Police at the Anaheim City Hall on June 1, 2020 in Anaheim, California
A demonstrator holds her hands up while she kneels in front of the Police at the Anaheim City Hall on June 1, 2020 in Calif.Apu Gomes / AFP - Getty Images file

This summer’s protests led to a renewed call for police work to radically change in America. But despite this momentum, Democrats are running scared. Even in major Democratic strongholds like New York City, they’re running from the powerful police unions that are more than willing to target any elected official who would dare reduce their budgets or strip them of “qualified immunity.” And they’re running from Republicans who’ve weaponized the “defund the police” slogan. Moderates have already blamed the slogan for the party’s loss in several House races this year, and Democrats' failure thus far to capture the Senate.

“Jaime Harrison started to plateau when 'defund the police' showed up with a caption on TV, ran across his head,” House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Harrison’s attempt to unseat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina wound up with him losing by about 10 points. “That stuff hurt Jaime,” Clyburn added.

Likewise, in an internal conference call, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., vented that she nearly lost her race because of attacks from her opponent saying she wants to defund the police. But, much like the tag “socialist,” those labels are going to be tossed around no matter what a given Democratic candidate actually supports.

Democrats also need to take into account that, as argued in Bloomberg City Lab, the anti-police brutality protests this summer may have actually galvanized the turnout among Black voters that was needed for President-elect Joe Biden's win. And while police abolition may not be every Democrat’s end goal, attempts to shield themselves from the stigma of “defund the police” blunts their suggested intermediate steps, rendering them less effective.

"We can restructure the police forces, restructure, reimagine policing," Clyburn said in June. "That is what we are going to do.”

Sure. Now, if you’re a member of a police force, you know you have a political shield against repercussions and a basic guarantee that civilian governments won’t slash your budgets and the firepower of a small former Eastern bloc country at your disposal. What would you make of any efforts to roll back your prerogatives?

Police in Tallahassee definitely don’t have to worry about any of that. Yes, the department has had three police shootings since March, but their budget for fiscal year 2021 is still roughly $59 million, same as the year before. Plus, they get their Rook. The city council passed the motion to buy one for the force unanimously.