It goes without saying, but the police have certainly claimed the nation’s attention as of late. The national protests have quelled in some cities, but rage in others. Protests against police brutality have only brought more police brutality—instances of “excessive force,” like utilizing pepper spray and batons at a protestors’ violin vigil, shooting an unarmed civilian eight times while she was sleeping, or assaulting the eldery. The feds have even deployed the national guard and implemented harsh curfews. Where did this all come from? Recent escalations and increased militarization of policing are a direct consequence of our investment in military spending overseas.
While U.S. military spending has been on the decline for decades, the U.S. spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined. In fact, the U.S. currently recognizes ongoing military action in seven countries—and the U.S. has spent more than 100 years at war, which translates into a lot of military spending. Congress has two categories for the national budget: mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending consists of all Congress’ pre-existing agreements or responsibilities—like Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, interest on debt, unemployment, student loans which continue to be paid indefinitely.
Discretionary spending—which includes most education, defense, and transportation programs—is decided through annual appropriation acts. For an illustration of just how much we’re spending, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 alone, Congress blew almost half of the discretionary budget on defense. $622 billion were allocated for defense and $642 billion were allocated to nondefense categories. Of the $716 billion projected to be spent, over 30 percent covers military personnel and research and development.
All of this investment in training and creating new technologies and equipment does not stay overseas. Economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall note in their book “Tyranny Comes Home” that this investment boomerangs back and is often used against citizens in times of crisis. When soldiers return from the battlefield, they carry with them admirable traits like leadership, discipline, and courage. However, while abroad, they also receive advanced training in combat skills and population control—which doesn’t disappear once they return to American soil.
And many veterans are recruited and given special preference in hiring for law enforcement positions. A study by professors Lewis and Pathak of Georgia State University found that while approximately 6 percent of the population are current or former military, almost 20 percent of law enforcement officials are former military. Hiring veterans and providing career support for them is an effort that should be applauded, but fast-tracking their transition to police departments raises cause for concern.
Trauma faced abroad in several cases has been attributed to officer-involved shootings on U.S. soil. For example, in July 2012 an Iraq War veteran serving on the police force in Albuquerque fatally shot an unarmed motorist while suffering from what they describe as a “PTSD” moment. The vet-turned-officer blacked out during the shooting, and had been assigned to a high crime area even though they were known to suffer from blackouts, flashbacks, and walking nightmares related to their deployment. Data on incidents such as the one in Albuquerque are tough to estimate due to unwillingness by many departments to disclose officers’ former backgrounds. Additionally, there is no nationwide formal tracking of performance among police specifically with former military backgrounds. One study published in the Journal of Public Health found that officers sampled from the Dallas Police Department who were deployed while in the military were three times more likely to be involved in officer involved shootings. This research is critical to understanding unintended side effects of the vet-to-cop pipeline, and highlights how easily a vet turned cop’s former training can turn unnecessarily deadly at home.
Not only does training and trauma return with soldiers, but their gear does too. Due to the heavy investments Congress annually assigns to R&D and war toys, military officials are always reluctant to dispose of equipment and tech they don’t use anymore—which is why more than 8000 law enforcement agencies have enrolled in a program to receive it instead. In fact, since 1997, the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) or LESO Program has ceded over $7.4 Billion dollars worth of property. And for FY2019, $293 million worth of property was distributed to local law enforcement agencies. Critics argue this combination of experience and gear leads to militarization of police—not just at critical times, but in everyday policing as well.
As we enter into national discussions over how to eliminate preventable police-involved shootings and violent police escalation during protests, we have to rethink the money we’re dumping into the military first. There’s so much more that we could be doing to help our vets, including helping them overcome their mental health issues through offering therapy and rehabilitative services. But the direct army-to-police pipeline, as it is, isn’t good for anyone. At the end of the day, while military investment is important for the defense of our country, we have to recognize that what we do to make our military strong doesn’t just stay overseas to help.
It often comes right back home to hurt.