I’m the chair of Digital Fourth / Restore The 4th-Boston, a local volunteer civil liberties group focusing on surveillance and Fourth Amendment issues. Last Tuesday morning, I and five others went to testify at the Massachusetts State House on a bill that would limit police militarization. H. 2503, proposed by Rep. Denise Provost, would require a public hearing and a vote by elected officials before some kinds of military equipment and surveillance technologies are deployed in a town. The list includes armored vehicles, drones, machine guns, sound cannons and stingrays. (Rep. Keefe and Sen. Barrett testified in favor of a similar ACLU bill (H. 1276 / S. 1277).)
A police union representative was the only person to testify against the measure, saying that they were “adamantly” opposed to it, because it would slow down such deployments and threaten public safety. Our perspective is that the public have a right to have a say as to what kind of surveillance they’re subjected to, and that it shouldn’t be just up to the police chief. It’s ridiculous that even bucolic rural communities like Palmer and Rehoboth get this kind of stuff landed on them without the approval, or sometimes even the knowledge, of their elected officials. Recent research suggests that militarizing a town’s police force increases civilian deaths and assaults on police officers.
The following is an excerpt from the written testimony I submitted, going into more detail on the equipment and the research. If you’d like to take action, please call your state rep or state senator and urge them to recommend a favorable vote in the Joint Committee on Public Safety on these bills.
SUPPORT H. 2503, “An Act assuring municipal control of military equipment procurement by local law enforcement.” This is a one-paragraph bill, without significant cost implications, that aims to deal with a serious problem in the Commonwealth.
Over $12 million in military surplus equipment has made its way from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back to the streets of Massachusetts alone. Some of this equipment is, in our view, innocuous: It can be a good way for police departments to equip themselves with rifles, helmets, handcuffs and other material no longer needed for military use. However, around one-sixth of the overall equipment value constitutes acquisition that are problematic, including mine-resistant military assault vehicles in Haverhill, New Bedford, and tiny Rehoboth, and an aerial reconnaissance camera system designed for detecting subsurface minefields in Palmer.
Beyond this, police departments in communities across Massachusetts are seeing a constant flow of new technologies of surveillance and crowd control deployed on their streets. To take Boston alone, in the last two years they have been found to have a stingray, have tried to deploy intrusive and expensive social media surveillance technologies, and are testing out drones. None of this has happened with the explicit consent of local elected officials, and much has happened without even their knowledge.
It is through small decisions like this, town by town, that our police departments are slowly changing to look less like the people they serve, and more like occupying armies. This builds a charged atmosphere of hostility and confrontation, contributing to our having a rate of killings by police sixteen times that of Germany’s (the risk officers face, in terms of death in the line of duty, being much the same). And in fact, the latest research out of Harvard and Stanford backs up the idea that militarizing your police officers leads to more officer-involved shootings.
When police departments were first created, they were intended to express the principle that “the police are the public, and the public are the police.” The Founders were so concerned about the use of military forces for domestic repression that they refused to set up a peacetime standing army. After Reconstruction, the Posse Comitatus Act forbade the military from exercising police powers. Except in times of extraordinary local lawlessness, such as the resistance to desegregation in the South in the 1960s, the National Guard is generally not a daily presence in our streets, and everyday policing is meant to be left to municipal, lightly armed officers. In the 1980s, however, this began to change, in response to a massive increase in crime. SWAT teams spread across the country, initially presented as being useful for hostage situations and gang warfare. But in today’s low-crime environment, with crime levels not seen since the early 1960s, SWAT teams are mostly used instead to execute drug warrants. However, the equipment and tactics intended to deal with that 1980s crime wave remain in place.
In the 2000s, there was a flood of funding for training in response to terrorist attacks. In “Urban Shield” trainings, police act essentially as a military, treating the public as potential threats rather than as fellow Americans and Commonwealth residents fully entitled to the protections of the Constitution. If the training you receive is for an extraordinary breakdown in civil order, ordinary policing tactics get lost; if you think of members of the public as a threat, then their Fourth Amendment protections are much less likely to be consistently respected. We saw where these trends were leading in Watertown in 2013, where 9,000 officers and National Guardsmen turned out with military assault vehicles, to participate in an unsuccessful lockdown and house-to-house search for a single fugitive teenager. Now, the Trump administration is calling even for the minor limitations placed on deploying military equipment in our towns and cities by the Obama administration to be lifted.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the situation only calmed when the local, militarized police force was sidelined and the much more lightly armed state police came in and walked with the protesters. We believe that if such equipment is to be part of local police forces, it should only be with the explicit, recorded consent of the elected officials, after a properly noticed public hearing, so as to provide oversight and accountability.
Our bill explicitly tries to set the same systems in place for new technologies of surveillance and control. It’s not just about the armored vehicles. It’s also about controversial technologies such as stingrays, drones, and ultrasound crowd control devices. Much inappropriate secrecy surrounds the deployment of such systems, and we believe that it is appropriate for the public to know whether they are being deployed by their police departments; the best way to achieve this is, again, by having the elected officials explicitly, as a matter of public record, vote on whether they should be used.