How Columbus plans to ‘demilitarize’ its police department

Midwest

(NewsNation) — City Council members in Columbus, Ohio voted to restrict militarized police presence and equipment Monday, the latest action stemming from the nationwide discussion about changing the way police interact with the community.

The vote took place on the six-year anniversary of the death of Adrienne Hood’s son, who was shot and killed by police.

“If public safety is to protect and serve, then there is no need for officers to have militarized weapons and equipment,” Hood said at Monday’s City Council meeting. “You’re not at war with the community you are supposed to be serving.”

Moments after her comments, council members approved legislation that bans law enforcement’s use of certain force against nonviolent protestors, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, wooden pellets, batons and body slams.

Residents have raised concerns about police tactics including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets during protests.

Talk of demilitarizing local police departments surfaced nationwide after the 2014 fatal shooting of Black 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer.

In 2015, then-U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order that required increased oversight of the program and banned certain equipment. That order was revoked two years later during former President Donald Trump’s first year in office.

It arose again in 2020 when a white police officer publicly and on camera killed George Floyd, a Black man whose death sparked protests and calls for police reform in cities throughout the country.

The Fraternal Order of Police has defended the use of military surplus equipment and pushed back on such measures.

In a July 2020 letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, National FOP President Patrick Yoes stated supplies received through Defense Logistics Agencies programs are repurposed for public safety use.

“Simply because a piece of equipment was originally purchased — with our tax dollars — by the DoD does not make it military equipment,” Yoes wrote. “A tool is defined by its use. The equipment is used to defend and protect officers and civilians from threats and to carry out law enforcement and public safety objectives.”

Columbus’ ordinance will codify a permanent injunction established in a 2021 federal court ruling tied to protests that followed Floyd’s death. It also will require officers to clearly display their names and badge numbers.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

The militarization of police has been in the works for decades, Stanford University law professor David Sklansky said.

The practice of providing departments with military equipment emerged alongside the community policing movement in the 80s and 90s.

Ultimately, it became a competing agenda within policing at a time when departments did not see a downside to building SWAT teams or supplying departments with surplus military gear, Sklansky said.

“It turned out that the overuse of military equipment and tactics really did prove to be antithetical to community policing,” he said.

One federal program often referenced as the 1033 Program, originated in 1990 when Congress allowed the Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus property to federal, state and local law enforcement. 

Distributions included 20 M-16 rifles to the parks division of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources, according to the Marshall Project. The warden service of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife also received a small aircraft, 96 night-vision goggles, 67 gun sights and seven M-14 rifles.

WILL IT WORK?

In light of what one 2017 study called “notoriously unavailable” data on police violence against the public, it’s hard to predict what impact ordinances like Columbus’ might have long term.

“I don’t know of any quantitative or systematic studies of this,” Sklansky said. “But I also don’t know of anecdotal evidence suggesting that communities have been putting themselves at risk by pulling back on the militarization of policing.”

The use of military-level equipment isn’t inherently aggressive, either. In 2017, police used a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, or MRAP, to aid in a Michigan flood response, for example. Officers also used a repurposed armored truck to help distribute meals to Pennsylvania students during the pandemic.

“I think it’s important that as we move forward with crafting new approaches to public safety … that are less militaristic and that rely more on partnership with the public, that we build bridges to the extent that we can to the officers who can help us with that agenda,” Sklansky said. “And and there are lots of them.”

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