What makes us feel safe in our communities? When you know your neighbors, when youth have connections to positive people, and when residents feel pride in the appearance of their street, this keeps a community safe. When men armed with assault rifles and flash grenades spill out of an armored personnel carrier in the middle of the night to break down a door searching for drugs, this has the opposite effect. Security does not come from more weapons, night vision goggles, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Yet this has been the federal approach to enhancing community safety for years. Since 1997, the Defense Logistics Agency has funneled $5.1 billion of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies through the federal 1033 program. This equipment has fueled a nationwide trend in aggressive police practices. Rather than confronting barricade or hostage situations, police SWAT teams now frequently serve search warrants, raiding homes looking for drugs.
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Paramilitary policing has left tragedy and unintended consequences in its wake. When searching for drugs, SWAT teams regularly use battering rams and other devices to force entry into homes. Family members and children have been injured and killed as the result of these aggressive search practices. And despite comparable levels of drug use across racial groups, SWAT raids are disproportionately conducted in communities of color. Safe communities depend on trust between community members and law enforcement. The tools and tactics employed by police to execute warrants and search for drugs undermine these relationships. Battering rams and nighttime raids place additional strain on existing tensions between police and those they have committed to serve. When the scenes from Ferguson brought the militarization of American police into national focus, President Barack Obama called for an investigation of the 1033 and similar programs that arm local law enforcement. Recently, the ACLU and 35 other organizations sent a letter to Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel asking that the flow of weapons to local police departments be stopped while these programs are investigated. Citing a lack of oversight and little communication between various agencies, the letter calls for a moratorium on these programs until their effects can be fully evaluated. When the government deploys police and use of force, it has the responsibility to ensure that people are protected, not put at greater risk. The evidence suggests that arming our police like soldiers does not make our communities safer. Remind the Department of Defense that our neighborhoods are not war zones.