How to demilitarize the police

Oxfam used this graphic in a social-media campaign calling on the government to end transfer of military weapons to local and state police. Emily Eberly/Oxfam

Weapons flowing from the military to civilian police forces are fueling human rights abuses against Black people and other communities of color in the US – and most recently protesters.

What’s the problem?

Across the United States, our government is transferring deadly weapons from the military to civilian law enforcement agencies. These weapons and other military equipment and vehicles are encouraging the use of increasingly violent tactics in even the most routine police work, everything from executing search warrants to responding to peaceful demonstrations.

It’s a problem because the pipeline of military weapons, including grenades, high-caliber assault rifles, bayonets, and even armored vehicles, are designed for use by soldiers in combat, not law enforcement officers on America’s streets – and research shows they are being disproportionately used against Black people and other people of color and make our communities less safe. This reality is part of a sad pattern: around the world, Oxfam has seen firsthand the impact of the proliferation of weapons on the rights of marginalized communities.

How can we reduce military weapons on US streets?

The Pentagon is transferring excess military weapons and equipment via a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) called Section 1033. Since 1996, when it began, the Pentagon has sent more than $7 billion worth of weapons and equipment to more than 8,000 civilian law enforcement agencies across the US.

Black communities – who have been disproportionately affected by this program – have been organizing and advocating for years to de-militarize the police.

An Executive Order expected from President Biden could reinstate critical restrictions on the program first imposed by President Obama. Congress is also considering legislation to enshrine and expand these restrictions. These measures are achievable now and lay the groundwork for the full repeal of the program.

Why is Oxfam working on this?

In over 70 years of fighting poverty all over the world, Oxfam has seen firsthand how poorly regulated arms flows and institutionalized discrimination from security forces undermine social and political development. In response, we have sought to disrupt the global flow of weapons fueling conflict, violence, and human rights abuses. In the process, we have worked closely with local partners to promote community-driven approaches to security and justice, and budgets that are rights-based and reflect community priorities. Here in the US, we are working with a range of Black-led, civil rights, and human rights organizations to apply these lessons.

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