It has been widely reported that I recognized, several months before the martial law scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, how problematic it is to put military weapons and equipment in the hands of police officers, and that I introduced and forced a vote on an amendment in the House to prevent that. It also has been widely reported that I lost that vote. We then saw the consequence of that sad outcome on our TV screens and computer screens. I want to share with you some of the points that I made when that amendment was under consideration. I will tell you what was said in opposition to my amendment. And then, in light of what we saw in Ferguson, I want you to tell me how you would have voted.
To have military weapons in the hands of the police is a blatant violation of Sir Robert Peel’s “Nine Principles of Policing,” which has been the gold standard of police conduct for two centuries. Here are those principles:
· To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
· To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
· To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
· To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
· To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
· To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
· To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
· To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
· To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
With that in mind, I introduced an amendment to prevent any further distribution of armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents, chemical agents, biological agents, launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines, and nuclear weapons by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to police departments in the United States. The amendment did not restrict the distribution of guns or ammunition.
The purpose of my amendment was to address a growing problem throughout our country, which is the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, and the resulting friction between the police and the policed.
The New York Times had recently reported that police departments around the country had received thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment and hundreds of silencers, armored cars, and aircraft directly from the Department of Defense. These are military weapons and materiel.
I thought, and I still think, that this is appalling. That is why my amendment tried to prohibit the Department of Defense from gifting military-grade equipment, such as aircraft—including drones—armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, and bombs to local police departments. I believe that those weapons have no place in our streets, regardless of who may be deploying them.
As The New York Times article ‘‘War Gear Flows to Police Departments’’ explained:
“Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of ‘barbering without a license.’ [That was in my hometown of Orlando, by the way - AMG.] One South Carolina sheriff’s department now takes a new tank that it received from the Department of Defense with a mounted .50-caliber gun to schools and community events. The department’s spokesman calls that tank a ‘conversation
Forgive me, but I just don’t think this is the way I want my America to be. I think that our police should act like public servants, not like warriors at war. My view of America is one where our streets are safe, and they don’t resemble a war zone, no matter who is deploying that equipment. We don’t want America to look like an occupied territory.
After I made these simple and brief points to my colleagues in the House, a certain distinguished gentleman from New Jersey then beat his chest about 9/11. I’d like to try to explain to you his argument that the 9/11 tragedy somehow justifies giving landmines, torpedoes and missiles to local police departments. But in order to explain it, I would have to understand it, and I just don’t.
Then an esteemed colleague from the Great State of Florida made this comforting point: He said that you can always find misuses of any equipment that is given to the police, but it is the responsibility of local communities to keep the police in check. In other words, tanks don’t kill civilians; it’s the tank occupants who kill the civilians. Which really begs the question: How is the community going to keep the police “in check” if it’s the police who have the tanks, the helicopters and the chemical weapons?
In response to these points, I invited any opponent of my amendment to cite a case – any case, at any time, in any place – where the police in any American community actually had ever used military weapons for a necessary and proper purpose. I asked them to identify any act of terrorism that was thwarted by handing to police officers helicopters that are militarized, handing them bombs, and handing them the military gear that you would expect to see only on the battlefield.
For that invitation, there were no takers.
I therefore pointed out that those weapons simply are not being used to defeat terrorism in our streets. Instead, they are being used to arrest barbers in Orlando, and to terrorize the general population.
And then I made a very important point, one which unfortunately was borne out very quickly in Ferguson, Missouri. I said that such weapons often are used by a majority to terrorize a minority.
Someone had to say it.
And I added that we all know of many cases— both recent and in the deep, dark past—where the police used their weapons improperly, and brutally. It used to be that they could only use billy clubs or guns that way. But now, they can use helicopters and bombs. And before long, I suppose, given the “anything goes” logic of the Defense Department’s Section 1033 program, the police will be able to deploy nuclear weapons.
That is not an America that I want to live in. And I’m not going anywhere else, any time soon.
In my finale, I pointed out that without my amendment, DoD is free to provide the police with weapons of mass destruction, deployed within our borders, with no strings attached. Unfortunately, no one in the House seemed concerned by that.
That was the sum and substance of the debate. I haven’t left anything out.
I’m a Democrat, and the Democrats are a minority in the House of Representatives. So for me to win, I have to attract Republican support. I did that. The strength of my arguments, or perhaps my wit and charm, enticed 19 Republican House Members to vote in favor of the Grayson Amendment. If you check, you will find that there are exceedingly few House Democratic amendments that win that kind of GOP support.
There are 199 Democrats in the House. 19 + 199 = 218, the magic number in the House of Representatives. 218 makes a majority.
Unfortunately, the House Democrats abandoned the Grayson Amendment in droves, and it went down to defeat. Hence Ferguson.
But that was then, and this is now. I want to know something else today – how you would have voted. What if you were in Congress? Would you have voted for the Grayson Amendment, or against it?
At some point, I’ll share the results.
With that amendment, I was ahead of the new cycle, ahead of the crowd. But isn’t that what leaders are supposed to do? Lead?
Rep. Alan Grayson