Earlier this month, Gov. Jim Justice asked the West Virginia National Guard and Department of Homeland Security to collect and send excess body armor to Ukraine and encouraged police departments across the state to participate. The Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department and West Virginia University Police stepped up and donated ballistic vests to the cause. We would like to thank them for supporting Ukraine’s people as they fight to maintain independence against Russian aggression.
But we think police departments here and across the nation can do more.
Since the 1970s, local and state law enforcement agencies have received decommissioned military equipment for little to no cost. The practice became official in the 1990s when Congress passed a law that codified the 1033 program — so called for the section that officially granted permission for the Department of Defense to transfer military-grade equipment and weapons to American police.
There are mixed results when quantifying the impact of law enforcement agencies’ use of military-grade equipment. One study published in the American Economic Journal in 2017 found that “a 10% increase in [military] aid [to local law enforcement] reduces total crime by 5.9 crimes per 100,000 population,” with a greater impact on robberies, assaults, larceny and motor vehicle thefts. Another study, published in SAGE Journals in 2017, estimated that “moving from the minimum to the maximum expenditure values [no military equipment to approximately $858,000 in military equipment], on average, increases civilian deaths by roughly 129%.”
Arming police officers like soldiers encourages them to think like soldiers: They are no longer there to serve and protect the community, but to forcibly punish any perceived wrongdoing, and everyone looks like an enemy combatant. It also attracts the kinds of candidates who are more interested in playing with military “toys” than helping their neighbors.
When we, as a society, weigh the pros and cons of arming local police with military-grade equipment, we should keep in mind that property can be replaced — people cannot.
With that in mind, we would encourage all West Virginia law enforcement agencies — indeed, law enforcement across the nation — to donate weapons and heavy equipment acquired through the 1033 to the resistance efforts in Ukraine. Such devices were designed for use on a battlefield, not our city streets. It’s time to send them back to the battlefield where they belong.