It’s one of the most fraught questions in America today: whether local police forces should embrace the use of military equipment and tactics, or whether police militarization has a destructive effect on relationships with the community they protect and serve.
The issue rose to prominence in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, during the unrest that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Recently, the controversial police response to protests in St. Louis showed the debate isn’t anywhere close to resolution.
After Ferguson, then-President Barack Obama weighed in directly by limiting the federal program known as 1033, which sends surplus military equipment to local police. Now, President Trump has reversed those limits, stoking the debate nationally and lending new relevance to legislation that’s been proposed here in Massachusetts
In the gritty town of Southbridge, Police Chief Shane Woodson has only good things to say about the 1033 program.
“This is one of the rifles, one of the M16’s we've got from the 1033 program,” Woodson said, displaying a former machine gun that’s been retrofitted so it fires only one round each time the trigger is pulled. “Totally stripped down, it’s about $1,000.”
Through the 1033 program, though, the Southbridge Police Department got 23 of these rifles for free back in 2013. It also acquired a Hummer, and 100 pairs of winter boots.
Still, for Woodson, it’s the rifles that really show how valuable the program can be for cash-strapped departments like his.
“Our median income [in Southbridge] is about, I think it’s nine or 10 from the bottom,” Woodson said. “[A] lot of good, hard-working people that live here, but we don’t have a very high tax base. We need this type of weapon system. But we couldn’t have afforded it.”
Asked why Southbridge police need this type of weaponry, Woodson cites several recent incidents, including one at a local school.
“[A boy] was holding … it was a stapler, but he’d raised it up quickly to a young girl,” Woodson said. “She’s a kid, 13, 14 years old, no idea what was happening, and we had to respond with our vests and M16s. You don’t want to go into a situation where the person, the suspect has an assault weapon and you don’t.”
As you might expect, Woodson applauds Trump’s decision to reverse the limits Obama imposed on the 1033 program two years ago.
“All politics aside, what [Trump] said with that message, it’s merely my opinion as a chief, is, ‘We’ve got your back. We support you,’” Woodson said.
But at the ACLU of Massachusetts, there’s deep concern about Trump’s move.
“We at the ACLU see that in the context of other decisions the Trump Administration has made recently — for example, to pardon Joe Arpaiao,” said Kade Crockford, who directs the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Program. “[Trump] gave a speech in front of law enforcement in which he appeared to endorse police brutality," she added.
Even before Trump took office, Crockford argues, local police were embracing the use of military-style tactics in routine situations. Now, she’s concerned that more access to military gear could exacerbate that trend.
“It’s not just that the police officer is banging down someone’s door in the middle of the night to serve a search warrant,” Crockford said. “It’s that he’s dressed like a soldier. He’s outfitted like one. He’s maybe riding in an armored personnel carrier to get to that house.”
It’s hard to imagine the ACLU and Southbridge Police Department finding any common ground on this issue. But on Beacon Hill, a push for more public oversight of how police use military gear just might strike a balance.
If a bill filed by State Sen. Michael Barrett (D-Lexington) becomes law, local police could still get surplus military items from the feds. But first, they’d have to make their case at a public hearing, and then get approval from elected officials in their city or town. (Similar legislation has also been filed in the House.)
“We need to democratize this, create some sort of public discussion,” Barrett said. “The idea is to be proactive here. We don’t want to confront a situation where there might be an over-response by law enforcement because they’re equipped like a foreign invading force.”
The ACLU is already on board with Barrett's proposal.
“It is critical that the public have a voice,” Crockford said.
And while Woodson, the Southbridge Police Chief, disputes the suggestion that equipment shapes the way people behave, he’s amenable, too.
“The public needs to know what we do,” he said. “I think it’s good they know what we do.”
All of which suggests a rare glimmer of possible consensus on a topic that remains extremely divisive nationwide.