The Toxic Culture of Police Militarization and How To End It

Emma Loeber
4 min readMar 11, 2021
WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999 Pepper spray is applied to the crowd. By Steve Kaiser.

The last two years have been fraught with stories of police violence, injustice, and abuse. Protesters and lawmakers are all searching for a solution to these problems, and how to deal with the structural issues of police and criminal justice in the U.S. But it might not be as complicated as it seems.

Start by focusing on the root of the problem: why does the violence happen in the first place? It could be because of individual issues like racism or corruption, but there is a reason that many officers actually act on these biases. It is because of the message that is sent to police officers from the federal government when they are equipped with military grade weapons: that they can use them against the people. And so, sometimes, they do.

The federal government gives hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment and weapons to federal, state, and local agencies every year for free. There are several government grant systems that allow this to happen, like the 1033 and 1122 programs and several DHS and DOD programs. They transfer excess military items like grenade launchers, assault rifles, helicopters, bayonets, deception equipment, riot guns, and MRAP vehicles prepared for war. The reason those items are so harmful is that they are almost never needed in routine police activities, but because the 1033 program requires agencies to use or lose whatever they get by taking it back after one year without use, police are using high grade military equipment against unarmed citizens. This leads to an environment in which excess force is normalized and even encouraged by the government.

That means that even examples of police brutality that didn’t explicitly involve military weapons could likely have been prevented by removing them. For example, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed with a pistol by an officer from the Louisville Metro Police Department. According to the Courier Journal the department had received over $347,788 worth of military surplus equipment in 2014 alone. When the government gives weapons that are not needed in routine activities to police it essentially gives them the green light to escalate violence.

In fact, according to a 2017 study headed by Gardner-Webb University political science professor Dr. Casey Delehanty, agencies that received the maximum amount of military grants experienced an increase in civilian deaths of an average of 129%. That increase is concerning especially when considering that about 80% of US counties received a grant through one of the programs.

The 1033 program started in 1997 and really ramped up its use after 2006. Billions of dollars have been transferred since then with even small towns getting high grade equipment. For example, the Defense Logistics Agency has Monett, Missouri, with a population of around 9,000, listed as receiving two MRAP vehicles. MRAPs are mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles that were used by the US military in Afghanistan to protect against roadside attacks and IEDs. The problem with giving them to small town police departments is that they will likely never have a real need for them, but the acquisition of the equipment turns an idyllic small town into a war zone for officers and citizens. That is what creates the harmful culture of militarization and leads to higher levels of civilian killings by police in areas that received grants.

The issues surrounding police militarization are deeply entrenched and might seem insurmountable, but a complete demilitarization of all federal, state, and local police departments could allow the toxic culture that has been created to heal over time. It should be noted that federal agencies like the FBI and CIA are not technically police agencies and don’t receive military grants and so won’t be affected. But departments that are solely meant to perform police duties will. The best way to demilitarize would be to end the 1033, 1122, and any DHS or DOD programs that transfer military weapons to police. And because many locations would still have their existing military equipment, the federal government would need to authorize a buy back or turn in program to get the items back. If both of those things can successfully happen then the problems would likely abate because departments won’t have military weapons to use against citizens and, even if they did, the federal government is not only no longer giving them permission to escalate violence but actively discouraging it. Only then can police culture become refocused on the safety and well-being of citizens and reduce the issues of excess force, bias, and injustice that have been tearing the US apart for years.



Emma Loeber

International Relations student providing commentary and information on controversial topics through facts and knowledge.