In 2014, many Americans were startled by images of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri responding to street protests with tanks, assault rifles, and other military equipment. Media coverage of the protests in Ferguson drew attention to the militarization of local police departments, a trend that has been accelerated by two federal initiatives. In 1990, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment at no cost to police departments and other local government agencies. Known as the 1033 Program, this initiative has provided over $5 billion worth of military equipment to local police, including both non-lethal equipment and combat weapons, tactical gear used by SWAT teams, and the armored vehicles that have grabbed headlines.
During the Clinton years, the Justice Department also began to provide federal grants to local police departments to purchase military equipment. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security expanded this program significantly; in the decade after 9/11, local police departments have received over $34 billion in federal funding for military equipment and training. Students who have been confronted at protests with armored vehicles, or witnessed SWAT teams serve warrants to suspected criminals in their neighborhood, will be familiar with the impact of police militarization on local communities.
In this lesson, students will hone research skills by learning to ask high-quality questions on this timely issue. Students will be asked to imagine they are members of their local city council voting on whether to accept a grant to purchase an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle and other military gear. Their staff research issues to help them reach a decision—as council members, the students’ job is to figure out what questions they need to ask.
Typically, students are given research tasks and then go to sources expecting to find answers. However, in real-world research, the initial stage of reading often generates more questions than answers. This activity replicates that experience. Students’ initial source—clips from the documentary Do Not Resist (a film made by the son of a SWAT team member who questions the value of arming police as if they were going to war)—will be used to help students generate useful questions.
2–3 class periods
In this lesson, students will:
- Determine what they need to know in order to assess whether the current practice of militarizing local police forces is a good choice for their community; formulate the central issues into research questions
- Learn what the Posse Comitatus Act is
- Learn about the 1033 Program
- Optional: read an advanced level informational text and write a summary
- Film clips and a way to share or project them
- Internet access for students
- A digital way for the class to generate a shared list
Step 1: Introducing the Task
Project a picture of an MRAP vehicle (sample available here). Tell students that since 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given police departments $34 billion in grants to purchase this type of equipment. The U.S. Department of Defense has contributed an additional $5 billion in free military equipment to law enforcement agencies through a policy called the 1033 Program. Vehicles like the MRAP are among the things that local police departments have acquired.
The students are now members of their local city or town council and have been asked by their police department to accept a 1033 Program grant, so they can purchase an MRAP, weapons and other combat gear. They need to decide how they will vote on the issue. Will the militarization of their police force increase public safety or not? So that they are well informed enough to justify their votes to their constituents, they need to do “due diligence,” i.e., do their homework on the issue. That work will focus on figuring out what information they need and where they might find that information.
Step 2: What Is the 1033 Program?
Before they can dig deep into the issues, students need to understand the basics of the program that is making the acquisition of military equipment possible. You can introduce it to them in one of several ways:
1. Students with advanced reading skills can read the rules of the program on their own and then summarize them. The rules are available here.
2. Students can look at the rules as written (see website above) to get a feel for what they’d encounter in real life, then read a summary of those rules here.
3. Brief students on the program, highlighting key points from the sources above.
Optional: Require students write a summary of what they read, or do an in-class “check-in” to be sure they understand the basics.
Note: If class time is limited, you might want to assign this reading as prerequisite homework to be completed before you start with Step 1. Then do a quick, in-class check-in to be sure students understood what they read.
Step 3: Generating Questions
Now that students understand the 1033 Program, they are ready to begin their due diligence research. In small groups, ask students to generate a list of what they need to know in order to make a decision. They can include anything they want on their list, but everything must be in the form of a question. For example, if they want to know what police officers might do with an MRAP, their list might say, “Why do police need an MRAP?” or “What does the police department plan to do with an MRAP?”
Encourage students to list as many factors as they can, and give the groups a generous amount of time to create their lists.
To save class time, create a shared digital space for each group to post its questions so that all students can see every question.
As needed, circulate to help groups that get stuck. Encourage students to think in big picture terms: Does this reflect our values? Does it make our democracy stronger? How might this influence community-police relations? Also encourage them to think in practical terms: Will this equipment help reduce crime and make our city safer? Are there any legal liability questions? How will we pay to maintain this equipment? Can it be serviced with off-the-shelf parts or will it require expensive custom military-grade parts?
Briefly have the entire class review the aggregated list and eliminate duplicates. Keep the list posted during the next step.
Step 4: Screen the “Concord, New Hampshire” Clip
Show Clip 1, but stop just before the city council votes. You’ll show the outcome of the vote later. When the clip ends, guide students in a discussion of the points made by the three main speakers:
- The first makes note of a sign in the room: “More Mayberry, Less Fallujah.” Be sure that students know what that means—they might not be familiar with the fictional town of Mayberry, protected by wise and kind TV sheriff, Andy Griffith. The speaker, an Iraq veteran, also says, “It’s unlawful or unconstitutional to use American troops on American soil.” Draw students’ attention to that claim and ask if anyone knows the basis for it.
- The second asks the city to “put the brakes on fear” because acting out of fear means that terrorists have succeeded in disrupting our society.
- The third likens armored vehicles on Concord streets to a scene from the former Soviet Union, implying that this is an action reflective of an authoritarian or totalitarian nation, not a democratic one.
Explain the basic premise of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878—that federal troops shouldn’t be deployed in the U.S. for law enforcement purposes except in cases of national emergency (like a natural disaster). Depending on available time, you might want to take a few minutes to discuss why Congress thought this legislation was important.
Close the discussion by returning to the list of questions that the class generated. Ask if anyone has any questions they’d like to add. As you (or a student scribe) add the new suggestions, ask students to explain why they think the questions they want to add would be important.
Step 5: Show Additional Clips
Show Clips 2 and 3, pausing after each to generate additional questions, as in Step 4. If class time is limited, you could screen one, rather than both, of these clips.
Step 6: Categorizing
In small groups or as a class, organize the final list of questions into categories according to expertise needed in order to answer them (e.g., all the legal questions in one category, questions about police policy in another, questions about societal impact in a third).
Step 7: Identifying Sources
To finish the list, ask students to look at the categories. Create a column next to each category and list possible sources for the answers (e.g., ask the police chief, find a book or articles on the history of community policing, interview community members, get an opinion from legal counsel).
Step 8: Show Final Vote
To wrap up the activity, return to Clip 1 and show the vote at the end of the Concord, New Hampshire meeting. Invite students to share their reactions.
[Optional] Step 9: Assessment
As homework, ask students to conduct research and write position statements that indicate what their votes would be and the reasons behind their decision.
Conduct a research project to answer any—or all—of the questions generated during the activity. Arrange to share findings with the community, including police and elected officials.
Research whether the police department that serves your school has acquired any military equipment from the 1033 Program. If it has:
- Investigate department policies for using that equipment. Arrange a meeting for students to share their own policy recommendations with police officials.
- Invite elected officials who approved the acquisition to talk with students and explain how they approached the issue.
Poll police officers and community members about the militarization of policing. Compare the results.
Interview SWAT team members about how they view the community and their role in it.
Research the history of policing and/or use of military troops against American citizens (e.g., to quell the Whiskey Rebellion or break labor strikes).
Do Not Resist, directed by Craig Atkinson The site includes a general discussion guide with additional activity ideas, as well as a reading list for further study.
Posse Comitatus Act
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice: “The Militarization of Law Enforcement: Bypassing the Posse Comitatus Act” This easy-to-read Justice Policy Journal article chronicles the history of posse comitatus and the use of military force against civilian populations in the United States.
U.S. House of Representatives: 6 USC 466 This page provides a summary of the actual law and its amendments.
Wikipedia: “Posse Comitatus Act” This article provides a good summary of the historical context.
Opposition to Police Militarization
ACLU: “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police” This 2014 report on the militarization of U.S. police forces from the American Civil Liberties Union addresses many different sides of the issue.
Defense Logistics Agency: Law Enforcement Support Office This official military organization offers information about the 1033 Program, which enables local law enforcement agencies to obtain equipment from the U.S. military.