Militarization of Law Enforcement Brings Risks of Discrimination, Law Enforcement Overreach, and Harms to Civil Liberties

NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today urged Bergen County Sheriff (PDF) Michael Saudino to withdraw his office’s application to the Department of Defense (“DOD”) for two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, also known as MRAPs. Bergen County’s request for MRAPs contributes to an alarming, discriminatory national trend toward greater militarization of civilian police departments at the expense of civil liberties.

On July 20, The Record reported that Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino had requested two nearly 50,000-pound MRAPs from the DOD as additions to the county’s fleet of vehicles. The ACLU-NJ’s letter, sent to the offices of the Bergen County Sheriff, County Executive, and Board of Chosen Freeholders, emphasizes the potentially dangerous consequences of deploying such heavily armored vehicles, including risks of violence, property destruction and undermined civil liberties.

“No county in New Jersey needs a combat-style military vehicle to protect and serve the community, much less two,” said Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Adding these military-grade vehicles to the Bergen County fleet jeopardizes not only public safety, but also the critically important relationship between law enforcement and local communities. Bergen County residents are not an insurgent force, and the equipment used by law enforcement should not make them feel like the enemy.”

Use of equipment intended for military purposes can create a “warrior mentality” among law enforcement, which in turn can cause a community to feel as if they were under siege, damaging trust and cooperation. Disturbingly, this increased militarization disproportionately affects communities of color. In a 2014 national ACLU study on police militarization, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police (PDF), the ACLU found that 61 percent of people subjected to deployment of SWAT teams – short for “Special Weapons and Tactics” – for drug raids were people of color, and 54 percent of people subject to SWAT team activity in the execution of search warrants were people of color.

The DOD provides local law enforcement agencies the opportunity to receive retired military equipment for free, known as the “1033 Program,” in reference to its origins in Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997. The ACLU, in its report on increasing militarization of domestic police agencies, called on the DOD to add regulations to the 1033 Program that would restrict military equipment only to agencies that demonstrate a specific need for its use. The program itself, as well as the competitive nature of receiving this free equipment, encourages law enforcement to view combat-grade technology as appropriate for its use. The DOD requires agencies to use the equipment it obtains under the 1033 Program within a year of receiving it, giving local officials added incentive to use this equipment once it is obtained.

“There are real consequences to militarizing our law enforcement agencies, including potential discrimination, an environment of fear and mistrust, and increased risk of physical danger for both law enforcement and ordinary citizens,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Militarization of law enforcement may be a nationwide trend, but in effect, it disproportionately impacts one specific group: communities of color. The inequities in our criminal justice system mean that the objects of this intimidation, more often than not, will be the same people who face discrimination in our criminal justice system.”

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