Joy Rohde is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy.
What people in the media and what policymakers mean when they talk about militarization of the police is basically what we're seeing on the nightly news: images of police officers standing atop armored personnel vehicles, training assault riffles on protestors. What we're really seeing are police who are acting like and who look like soldiers rather than officers of the peace. If you think back to 1999 in Seattle peaceful protests against globalizaton were confronted by police in militarized gear. As a result, protestors felt threatened and things escalated into violence. We saw the same thing with the occupy movement and we've seen it again with Ferguson. This militarized police force really sends the message that dissent is in fact dangerous to security and so we lose space for dissenters and protestors to engage in the democratic process. The 1033 program, which the Defense Department created in 1977 to provide everything from office supplies to armored personnel vehicles to local law enforcement. The justification at the time was the war on drugs but of course it's very clear that when people get this gear they tend to want to use it. The termination of the 1033 program is one good policy solution but we need a much more thorough-going, long-term engagement, with how police perceive protests, how police perceive dissent. Some models have been put forth for example in Memphis where police receive intensive training in how you de-escalate a tense situation. If we want to think of police as officers of the peace, rather than as a force that has a very conflictual relationship with the community, then these are the kinds of policies we need to be pursuing.