Follow Route 8 as it winds south of the Berkshires and head west on Route 6 in Connecticut and you’ll come across the community of Watertown, population 22,500, and the proud owner of a MRAP (Mine-Reistant Ambush Protected) vehicle, one of the mammoth trucks used to protect troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorists planting bombs are not an issue on the leafy streets in Watertown, so why does the community have a MRAP on hand? Probably because it wanted one and could afford one.
The presence of the Watertown MRAP came to light in a Newsweek article spawned by the stunning display of military force by authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, who hit the streets like the Egyptian army in response to protesters angry about the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown. The MRAP has a sticker price of $733,000 but the Watertown police department was able to buy one at the low, low price of $2,800. This deal -- a taxpayer rip-off that spreads military weaponry across the country to communities that don’t need it and shouldn’t have it -- comes courtesy of Washington.
The tragic death of Mr. Brown is the latest reminder of how much more dangerous it is to be young, male and black in America than it is to be young, male and white. Protests were understandable and looting unforgivable, and when Jefferson police over-reacted by hauling out weapons of war more appropriate for a siege on Baghdad, America was startled into acknowledgment of another problem -- the overarming of local police forces.
These armaments are the result of the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, known in short as the 1033 program, which has supplied U.S. police departments with more than $4.3 billion in weaponry since 1997, including $449 million in 2013. The dual theories behind this program are that it will combat terrorism, even though incidents of domestic terrorism are exceedingly rare, and contribute to the war on drugs. It has been obvious for some time that the drug war must be fought in courts and rehabilitation centers, not on the streets with ear-piercing sirens, armored personnel carriers and MRAPs.
The presence of the program offers further confirmation of the bloated Pentagon budget. The warlords bought weapons they didn’t need at taxpayer expense and then sold them to communities like Watertown for fractions of pennies on the dollar. Better the Pentagon had melted the weapons down and sold them as scrap metal than to supply cheap and dangerous toys to trigger-happy police departments. The result is not safer streets but more dangerous ones, and the temptation will be to use the weapons to suppress dissenters -- like justifiably angry minorities.
There is a movement afoot in Congress to took a look at the 1033 program in the wake of Ferguson, but it is difficult to accomplish anything in Congress and it is likely that many there enjoyed the display of force in Ferguson. Much can be done in Massachusetts, however. In a timely recent report on this program, the ACLU of Massachusetts found that SWAT programs and the collection of military weapons by municipalities is largely done in secret with no requirements for public disclosure. (It did find that West Springfield got two grenade launchers to perhaps fight off insurgents from Holyoke). The ALCU recommended passage of state laws requiring transparency and oversight of the purchase program and its deployment, and establishing a complaint process.
"I do not endorse actions that move Boston and our nation into a police state mentality," then-Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis told Congress following the Boston Marathon bombings last year. He realized even that horrific incident of domestic terror could not justify such a dangerous mentality, one that has now surfaced in Missouri and may be just under the surface waiting to erupt in communities all across the nation.