Many universities across the country might soon be mistaken as military bases, as there seems to be a rise in campus police obtaining free and unnecessary surplus military equipment. According to a government report requested by The Chronicle for Higher Education, up to 117 colleges have secured equipment from the Department of Defense through their 1033 federal program — its purpose being to distribute military surplus to the nation’s law enforcement agencies.
Just in the past couple months, the University of Central Florida has received a grenade launcher repurposed as a tear gas canister launcher and 23 M-16 assault rifles and Ohio State University now has a new mine-resistant armored vehicle. This does not include the countless universities in the past few years that have requested equipment and machinery like military-grade body armor and custom water hose reels.
Luckily for us at USF, Dan Lawson, senior director of Public Safety on our campus, does not think that USF, or any campus for that matter, should find it necessary to build such a high-powered weapon inventory. “I have not seen evidence to support college and university use of military equipment, especially heavily armored vehicles, etc,” he says, “Good community-police relations and proper planning can usually avert any need for use of force.”
This on its own rebutts the justification coming from many campus police departments around the country. Many have defended their equipment stock by referencing the consistent need for crowd control on large campuses and the potential of active on-campus shooters. Yet it seems that city police departments exist to respond in the event of an off-campus threat or on-campus attack, when campus police do not have the training or capacity to get matters under control. Even so, a recent New York Times article about campus militarization reported that the law justifies use of such equipment in cases of counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations. “Terrorist attacks and shootouts with drug cartels are virtually unheard of [on college campuses,]” the editorial said.
Having military grade equipment appears to be the beginning of a very slippery slope. In 2011, UC Davis campus police notoriously pepper sprayed peaceful protestors during their on-campus sit-in, in solidarity of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is evident based on preceding campus police action against student activists that with the increase of military-grade equipment, lines will begin to blur between appropriate action that can be taken against student misconduct and civil disobedience, and the capacity to use excessive force with dire consequences.
To say the least, it is concerning when one reviews past instances of excessive force on students and civilian protesters in recent news. It does not seem to take much before law enforcement deems it necessary to act forcefully. We, at the Foghorn, hope that campus law enforcement does not take this apparent militarization too lightly.