I was in a convoy of six vehicles going to pick up some new arrivals. On our way back to the base, the vehicle I was driving had a transmission failure. This happened in what was considered a particularly dangerous part of the city. We dismounted our vehicles and took our protective positions, as one of the senior soldiers more familiar with the vehicle did troubleshooting.
- Corey Strong
We were vulnerable and exposed, and I experienced real fear despite the training I had received. While on my knee with my long rifle at the ready, I saw families walking back and forth in their community. I can tell you with confidence that a dozen armed men in armed vehicles made them just as afraid of us as we were of them.
Black Americans know that fear all too well. The deaths of George Floyd and countless others have made the country come to grips with this tragic reality — the reality that police forces all over the country for over 30 years have purchased $6 billion worth of equipment with a specific military purpose from the federal government. Along with the equipment, police have incorporated militaristic tactics to enforce racist policies targeted at black communities, such as the failed War on Drugs.
With 17 years of experience with military equipment, I can tell you that most police departments don’t have the experience and level of training needed to operate this equipment properly, which is a waste of our public dollars.
More importantly, this military armament is not the right equipment for policing in our communities. A 2017 study in Research and Politics has shown purchase of military equipment through the DOD 1033 program leads to higher levels of violence by law enforcement agencies — as well as against them.
This is not surprising to me. Even with the most powerful and well-trained military in the world, General Petraeus knew we and our NATO allies could not restore faith in a country with force, but instead would have to go about “winning hearts and minds.” That is what I did during my two tours in Afghanistan, and that is what our elected leaders and police should focus on here. The first step in winning back trust in our communities is to stop buying this equipment and discontinue using military-style tactics on civilians.
The dollars we spend on that equipment can be used to fund a long list of data-based solutions that will reduce violent interactions with the police, increase trust in those public servants, and reduce crime overall. We could create a Mental Health First Responders corps as an alternative to police, when 911 is used. We can invest in nonprofits that focus on crime and community life. A 2017 study in the American Sociological Review shows that for every 10 nonprofits funded there is an appreciable drop in the murder, violent crime, and property crime rates. We could fund the Shelby County Crime Commission to perform predictive policing to predict and intervene with officers who have a high risk of violent encounters.
Finally, we could invest in job training programs and growing industries that offer higher paying jobs so that members of our community reach their full potential and never have to consider a life of crime. The $650,000 mine-resistant vehicle Memphis Police Department purchased in 2016 could have funded these solutions and many others.
So, when you hear the terms “defund” and “demilitarize” in reference to the police, instead of fearing some lawless world without police, embrace a real future where our public dollars are used effectively to keep our communities safe and serve all people safely.
Corey Strong is an educator, commander in the Naval Reserves, and congressional candidate.