A local man appeals to Detroit Police. Photo by Franz Knight
A local man appeals to Detroit Police. Photo by Franz Knight

This government program gives police millions of dollars worth of militarization. Is that what Michigan communities need?

LANSING, MI — The current conversation around policing has raised the issue of defunding police departments. It’s even been proposed by Lansing’s Mayor Andy Schor. But what does that mean?

In the case of Lansing, it means reducing police funding by $100,000, Schor suggested. City Pulse reports a cut of $100,000 is about two tenths of 1% of the police budget, which is $136.5 million.

“I’d like to put the $100,000 into a fund for organizations to use for equity, for my brother’s keep type issues, allow agencies within our city to utilize these dollars to make change,” Schor told City Pulse

But that drop in the bucket of police spending was not enough for protesters. Michigan Radio reports that protesters have been calling on Schor to resign following the small number he suggested. Discussions between Schor and protesters navigating the issue continue. 

As Lansing struggles to define what defunding the police should look like, it’s important to note how much military-grade equipment police already have. 

Infographic by Desirée Tapia

Why Do Police Have So Much Military Weaponry?

Across Michigan, police departments own 35 vehicles resistant to landmines. Michigan police departments also own 22 PackBots, the highly adaptable robots used in war to do things like clear caves in Afghanistan.

And for most of these, police pay just the cost of shipping.  

The reason police have so much military equipment traces back to the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act’s 1033 Program, but changes in 1996 expanded the scope of the program created by that act. This allowed police departments to buy military equipment from the Pentagon for use in cities across the country. 

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But the use of that program exploded in 2006 as the Pentagon began selling police surplus equipment from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, reports the National Journal

Wired reports that an increased militarization of police has apparently not had a meaningful impact on the rates of crime. A history of lax record-keeping has made it impossible to determine what efficacy the program might have, however.

“There is no compelling evidence, right now, that arming LEAs (law enforcement agencies) with military-grade equipment increases or decreases crime,” Kenneth Lowande, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, told Wired. He added that demilitarizon efforts showed “no detectable impact on violent crime or officer safety.”

In fact, a 2017 study in SAGE found that as police militarization grew, police grew more violent. The study found this was a result of militarization in equipment causing a militarization mindset across four dimensions — material, cultural, organizational and operational. The study found that this increased civilian deaths by as much as 129%.

The Pentagon also doesn’t provide training on the equipment it sells to police under 1033, Wired reports.

“What programs like 1033 have done is given people the equipment to carry out operations that are traditionally done by tactical teams that otherwise would not have been able to obtain it,” Jonathan Mummolo, a political scientist at Princeton University told Wired. “That is for sure not always accompanied by extensive training. There’s just a lot of variation in policing standards across the board.”

Inforgraphic by Tania Lili

Former CIA counterterrorism expert turned police officer Patrick Skinner has been vocal following the death of George Floyd, and he spoke to Vox about the hazards caused by things like the 1033 program and how police are trained.  

“We’re taught that it’s a war. It’s not. But it’s becoming a war,” said Skinner. “America has the police force that it votes for, that it funds. This system is what we set up. We spent a lot of money and a lot of time over hundreds of years to have this police force. We are trained for what we’re hired for, and what we’re hired for is war.”

Worse, Wired also reported that a 2017 sting operation by the General Accountability Office set up a fake police department and secured over $1 million in real military-grade weapons from the 1033 program. 

“They never did any verification, like visit our ‘location,’ and most of it was by email,” Zina Merritt, director of the GAO’s defense capabilities and management team which ran the operation, told Wired. “It was like getting stuff off of Ebay.”

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The 1033 program has again found criticism in the wake of the death of George Floyd from outlets like Mother Jones, the Daily Mail and TechCruch. Criticisms of the program followed the death of Michael Brown and the wave of rage and criticism that first propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to the national stage in 2014, as noted by The Atlantic. As TIME notes, Floyd’s death is a sobering reminder that efforts to curb programs like 1033 after past killings have been largely unsuccessful. 

Could Communities Profit From That Equipment?

The heavy militarization held by cities and counties across the state seems at odds with the actual needs of police. But thanks to programs like 1033, cops are armed with millions of dollars in weaponry. 

Detroit’s weaponry is worth $500,000, for example. MLive reports the city saw 6,326 violent crimes in 2018. That’s compared to Oakland County’s armory valued at $4.7 million, the highest in the state. They recorded around 2,247 violent crimes in the same span.

Oakland is one of 14 Michigan counties with more than $1 million in weaponry.

Meanwhile, while Battle Creek reported 3,932 violent crimes in 2018 (based on estimates by the RAND Corporation) the amount of body armor they possess would equate to buying one set of body armor every single time a violent crime is committed. 

The tourist town of South Haven has seven unmanned vehicles, valued at $90,000.

“Why do we need military war equipment in these streets?” asked Flint resident Nayyirah Shariff of Michigan police in a conversation with The ‘Gander. “What’s your timeline to destroy whatever military-grade equipment you have?”

Michigan police departments have also received $53 million in equipment from the United States military for nearly nothing thanks to the 1033 program.

Defunding them could encourage them to sell that equipment off and avoid supplementing it with additional expenditures. 

And that money can be put to better uses, like the implicit bias trainings The ‘Gander reports the state of Michigan is pursuing, training officers to de-escalate situations or even employing specialists for situations like mental health crises that too often end tragically. 

READ MORE: Police Reforms In Michigan: How Legislators, Activists and Gov. Whitmer Want to Get it Done

NBC reports suggestions to also create new, non-police groups to handle things that typically don’t require the kind of militarized approach many departments employ, including monitoring the homeless, resolving domestic quarrels, disciplining students, responding to outbursts by people with mental illness, swarming neighborhoods to tamp down violence and responding to minor complaints.

Shannon Sykes-Nehring, an anti-racism facilitator from the Kalamazoo area told The ‘Gander that another wiser use of funds for police is on their own mental health support. 

“You can’t work in that sort of job and be in charge of policing communities without some sort of mental health care on an ongoing basis,” she said.