Police Militarization

Following the tragic events that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, Roosevelt@Boston’s membership voted to research police militarization and hold a series of events to better understand this issue. A police militarization policy committee was formed and produced a white paper on this topic. The executive summary is listed below and the full white paper can be downloaded at the bottom of this page:

Police and local law enforcement serve a valuable function in the community by enforcing the law, protecting property, and limiting civil disorder. Indeed, a popular police department motto is “To Protect and to Serve”.

Unfortunately, police values have become misaligned from community values. The increasing militarization of police – in terms of materiel and culture – is federally endorsed, but it can be seen as a form of mission creep. Tactics that are used on the War on Drugs and the War on Terror – themselves questionable endeavors – are used with greater and greater frequency during routine police actions, such as the execution of search warrants. Consequences of police militarization – such as growing distrust of local law enforcement; increased reporting of police brutality and the legal repercussions of excessive force; increased racial tensions; and unnecessary civilian injury and deaths – are inevitable yet avoidable.

In Massachusetts, analysis of the degree of police militarization is difficult due to lack of transparency and inadequate record-keeping; this is both on the part of local law enforcement agencies and consortiums called Law Enforcement Councils, which are operating partnerships between municipalities. The ACLU of Massachusetts recently settled with one of the larger councils to obtain access to their SWAT activation/deployment records; however, the influence of this precedent is limited by it being nonbinding.

There are steps being taken to curtail and perhaps even reduce the degree of militarization. The ACLU of Massachusetts is sponsoring a pair of companion bills in the House and the Senate that aim to limit acquisitions of material and increase transparency about the entire process. More locally, the mayor of Boston Marty Walsh has vowed to reform the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, which works with the Boston Police Department to address concerns and mediate complaints. Additionally, Boston City Councilmembers are pressing for the mandate of use of body cameras by Boston Police.

Reform must be systemic, and the national ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts are proposing many recommendations that address militarization on the national, state, and municipal level. To further advance these goals, Roosevelt@Boston is also suggesting a myriad of opportunities that are actionable on the individual level.

Download the full police militarization white paper here