Military tactics and military equipment have become a normal part of emergency efforts by local police in times of crises and disaster. The lines between law enforcement and national defense continue to blur.
During Hurricane Harvey’s search and rescue efforts in south Texas, local police navigated flood waters with Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) military vehicles and Humvees. Since police departments often hire former military personnel, some of the Houston Police Department (HPD)—those once serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the military reserves—were riding with familiarity.
Stashed in the Houston Police Department is more military gear such as army combative kits, reconnaissance robots and of course, high-powered rifles—all compliments of the Department of Defense through the “1033 program,” an initiative to give local law enforcement excess federal property, including military equipment.
Since 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, police departments within the state of Texas received 79,963 forms of military equipment, the most out of any U.S. state. In total, the equipment costs $111,912,250.72.
According to HPD, the machinery saved lives during and after the storm. But the rescue efforts are ancillary reasons for local law enforcement throughout the United States to possess military equipment as part of their artillery and security supplies. Communities and activists are still wondering why cops need tanks.
The ACLU argue that the 1033 program, coupled with Hurricane Harvey, gave police a pretext to “wage war on our neighborhoods,” in a way that shows increasing militarization of police departments in the country.
Although President Barack Obama prohibited the usage of 1033 program equipment against Ferguson protestors in 2014, President Donald Trump lifted the restrictions.
Police militarization in Puerto Rico after the hurricanes
While it is common to see military agencies in disaster-affected areas, to equip local police to function as para-military has become more popular since the September 11 tragedy.
In Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria, the federal government requested help to patrol devastated areas from a company called “Academi Security,” formerly called “XE,” and “Blackwater” before that. While there is no confirmation that they specifically are patrolling, confirmed sights and footage of private mercenaries exists in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Masiel Valentin, runs a relief fund for Puerto Rico’s residents in Newark, N.J. She also confirmed the presence of these mercenaries in Puerto Rico.
“There [were] ample pictures of them, we have the proof, with their faces covered,” Valentin said. “No name badges, refusing to say who hired them protecting the privileged neighborhoods. We’re talking about machine guns in the streets, not even the police department walked around with that kind of stuff.”
Alvin Suarez, of the band “Los Ciegos Del Barrio,” and a grassroots activist who works on issues concerning Puerto Rico said in a panel discussion hosted by Ark Republic that he was uninformed of the claims of police harassment.
“A lot of us aren’t aware of this. I think step one [is] we need to let people know that. The reason why a lot of stuff is unknown to a lot of us is because it’s not really reported in mainstream media,” Suarez said. “We need to get the word out as our community.”
On October 15, 2017, Ark Republic received reports of armed men dressed in uniforms who set up roadblocks and checkpoints although they masked their identity and the agency in which they worked.
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Reports coming out of Puerto Rico that there are roadblocks, checkpoints created by armed private security on public roads dressed as military, masking identity. Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety mum on the legality of carrying long weapons #PRonthemap #unidosPuertoRico #hurricanemaria #FEMA
Continued reports out of Puerto Rico accuse police officers and military agencies targeting and harassing residents. On May 1 of this year, an international holiday known as May Day that celebrates workers with demonstrations and performances, mixed-aged crowds from babies to seniors were doused with pepper spray and smoke bombs thrown near them by police.
As large numbers of teachers, social workers, students and activists gathered in San Juan after marches and demonstrations, law enforcement used aggressive tactics to disperse crowds.
“People were selling food. There were speakers and music. Teachers brought their children. There were pensioners and retired teachers and there were old people, and old people in walkers,” said Jennifer Wager, a New Jersey professor who has been covering education in Puerto Rico. During the demonstrations, she followed two major rallies — one with mostly teachers, and the other with students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).
According to Wager, “within the last 10 minutes of the last speaker finishing, the police began to get into formation.” She noticed that police quickly cordoned crowds from leaving.
“This was a military-style operation,” said Wager. “There were people in military uniforms instructing the police. The police were in riot gear blocking off all of the exits of the area. You literally could not get out.”
After the crowds were confined, Wager said that police began to throw tear gas canisters into the crowd.
Removing police hostilities
For former Philadelphia-mayoral candidate, Wali “Diop Olugbala” Rahman, communities and activists need to reorganize the police. This includes what he describes as a “demilitarization” of the police and a community-elected board of officials for every city block with the power to hire, fire, train, discipline, and subpoena any police officer, and the allowance of residential armed self-defense of Black communities.
“Black community control of the police is a democratic demand in that it places control of the police directly in the hands of those most affected by police behavior. This means the police will cease to be an invading force that comes to the African community looking for trouble…,” Rahman said. “…This means that the role of the police would have to change. Their uniforms would also change – from the military, storm trooper outfits and gear that are designed to instill fear and function to remind the people that we [are] under occupation.”
Jesse Shramenko covers current news. The story is part of the Ark Republic’s inaugural major collaborative project, the Hurricane Trifiecta: One Year Later.