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Military equipment for police should require military-style oversight

President Trump’s recent move to roll back limits on military weapons and equipment to local police forces is a disturbing development. In a recent executive order, the administration removed all federal accountability and oversight of how local police departments use this deadly gear. As the former Chief of Police for the Petersburg, Va., Police Department and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I understand the need for sensible restrictions and oversight of these weapons of war that threaten officer and community safety.

At the heart of the problem is the Department of Defense’s 1033 program and similar federal programs that transfer surplus military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. As a former Marine, I know that armored troop carriers and Kevlar body armor protect soldiers from hidden enemy mines and sniper bullets. But the infusion of military gear and training into our local police forces contributes to an ethos that the communities we are meant to protect are war zones.

{mosads}With proper training, there may be legitimate uses for some military equipment, such as during a search-and-rescue operation or in response to an active shooter. But those are exceptional circumstances. Today, the military equipment and tactics are used by police to carry out routine search warrants and to police protests protected by the First Amendment. The result is an increased likelihood of violent encounters between police and civilians. A recent report by The Constitution Project—which discusses the impact of increased militarization on constitutional rights—highlights that 85 percent of SWAT operations target private homes, waking up inhabitants with what appear to be a storm of heavily armed soldiers.

Many of these SWAT raids have been on the wrong home and led to a disturbing number of high-profile injuries and deaths, including of the elderly, infants and children. In neighborhoods where community-police relations are already strained, such incidents further escalate tensions and undermine public safety by discouraging communities from working with police to fight crime. According to a study by Harvard, Oxford, and Yale researchers, 911 calls in neighborhoods drop significantly after widely publicized acts of police violence. It’s not that the crime isn’t happening; it’s that people are afraid to call the police about it.

In order to address the problem, then-President Obama established an interagency working group of officials representing the federal agencies that transfer military equipment to police departments. It was clear that these federal programs had lacked meaningful oversight and accountability to ensure that the equipment dispensed to departments was necessary or that it was being used for its intended purpose.

With the input of law enforcement leaders and others, the working group created a limited list of “prohibited items”—such as bayonets, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft—that have no place in law enforcement. Beyond that, the working group created another short list of “controlled items.” Police could still obtain these items, but agencies would need to provide justification for its acquisition, proper training for officers using the equipment, and report on how it was being used. Many departments already had policies and training requirements governing appropriate, constitutionally-sound uses of such equipment, so this requirement was not particularly onerous. Indeed, not a single police department was ever prevented from obtaining equipment from the controlled list. The reforms merely provided oversight when dangerous military-grade weapons were going to our police departments and accountability when things went wrong.

Requiring agencies to provide proper training to officers using military equipment is common sense. When I was in the military, we were regularly drilled on proper use of equipment, and were held accountable when things went wrong. Why should we hold law enforcement officers at home to a lower standard?

In response to Trump’s actions, a coalition of 60 groups on the right and left are urging a moratorium on the 1033 program until Congress holds hearings or passes legislation to fix the problem. More recently, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (S. 1856), which would restore some accountability to 1033 and similar programs. A similar bill (H.R. 1556) was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).

Until legislation is passed or  the administration changes course, police chiefs and community leaders still have the power to “just say no” to unnecessary surplus military equipment. State and local governments should also take steps to regulate use of military equipment by specifying the circumstances under which they are appropriate and by mandating reporting, training and oversight. All Americans, especially those of us who’ve served in blue or green, should guard against this encroaching militarization of local law enforcement. We took an oath to protect and serve our nation and community. We must never turn our neighborhoods into war zones or the community into our enemy.

John I. Dixon III ​spent more than 25 years in law enforcement. He ​is the former Chief of Police of the Petersburg Police Department, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).​