The military has transferred billions of dollars of hardware to the nation’s police departments, and Pittsburgh’s been part of that, but the police brass won’t say what kind of weaponry we have.
Events in Ferguson, Mo., where camouflaged police have looked more like soldiers than cops, have gotten a lot of people thinking about the militarization of police. But some here began thinking about it five years ago when the G-20 Conference turned Pittsburgh into a police state for the worst part of a week. (City’s September 2009 motto: We won’t let any anarchists shut down our city; we’ll do it!)
We had 4,000 cops and more than 2,000 National Guardsmen telling people where they could and couldn’t go. Hours after the conference blessedly ended, police arrested vanloads of people in Oakland for being outside, making some of us long for those days when only crime was against the law.
Later, the city rather quietly paid close to a million dollars in settlements to people who sued after being arrested, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated.
Back in 2009, I didn’t think America could ever become a permanent police state because we couldn’t afford it. There were hovering helicopters, phalanxes of police on motorcycles and officers in heavy Star Wars-esque armor Downtown, all to take on what turned out to be a motley crew that wasn’t very good at window breaking or Dumpster moving (but were the ones deservedly arrested).
Since then, the federal government has sent billions of dollars of military hardware to police across the country. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower might have been shocked at this, though he presciently warned of the military-industrial complex and its “potential for the disastrous use of misplaced power.”
The Department of Defense doles out these surplus goods, roughly a third of which have never been used. Some $5.1 billion in vehicles, equipment, weaponry and other military property has been transferred since the program began in 1990, including nearly $450 million worth in 2013. Localities need only pay for shipping.
Preference is given to counterdrug and counterterrorism requests, so some municipalities have made rather comic reaches in that direction. An ACLU report notes Uncle Sam granted three New Hampshire towns just 30 miles apart an armored personnel carrier apiece, with Keene, N.H., citing its annual pumpkin festival as a potential terrorism target. (But, hey, who among us has never stretched the truth when trying to get a cool toy out of a rich uncle?)
The ACLU compiled its report using data from departments across the country, but Pittsburgh police denied the request for information. The ACLU is appealing that decision in court.
Some people see “ACLU” and think “liberal,” but President Eisenhower wasn’t the last conservative to question military overreach on the home front. Libertarians and fiscal conservatives with an eye on the deficit have questioned why big government has “incentivized the militarization of local police,” as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote.
The ACLU sought its info because heavily armed SWAT teams across the country have made raids that have killed or harmed innocents. (A Carrick woman, Georgeia Moreno, sued the city in federal court after around a dozen officers in SWAT gear raided her home in 2010 looking for her husband, who had been in a bar fight with an off-duty officer the night before. Ms. Moreno said police pointing “assault rifles’’ broke down the bathroom door and pulled her 10-year-old son from the shower and questioned him while he was naked. Trial is set for October.)
At a minimum, we ought to know what kind of military hardware American taxpayers have put into the hands of local law enforcement. Defense Department data show everything from bayonets ($25.69) to a mine-resistant vehicle ($733,000) shipped to departments in Allegheny County, but the city told the ACLU last year that “the requested records, to the extent they exist, are not public.”
It’s hard to see why.
“Do you think people aren’t going to do something just because you have a $733,000 armored personnel carrier?” Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, asked.
Stephen Bucar, Mayor Bill Peduto’s public safety director who began work in June, isn’t any more forthcoming than his predecessor. Mr. Bucar said through a spokeswoman last week that it’s inappropriate to comment while the ACLU is appealing in court.
Mr. Peduto, who pledged an open government, could make that appeal moot by releasing info in the way that federal, state and other city governments have.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.