By Hannah Finnie
May 31, 2015
Caption : Despite an overwhelmingly utopian depiction of American higher education, there is at least one aspect of college that is excessively dystopian: campus police militarization.     

The idea of utopia is at once elusive and magnetic. Though its etymology translates to “lack of place,” suggesting that such a perfect environment not only does not exist in current form but never will, we still continue searching and striving for utopia. But the idea of utopia doesn’t seem quite so out of reach at college campuses, which provide perhaps our closest attempt at utopia.

Ivory towers across the United States create idyllic environments for students to learn and grow. Environments where perfect financial aid packages (supposedly) abate differences in class, where citizens are informed and ready to pick up a picket sign at the drop of a hat (or microaggression), and where lawns are just as beautifully maintained as students’ knowledge of Aristotle’s Poetics. And yet, despite this overwhelmingly utopian depiction of American higher education, there is at least one aspect of college that is excessively dystopian: campus police militarization.

Since Ferguson, police militarization has become the conversation du jour at coffee tables and coffeehouses around the country. But campus police militarization–the idea that campus police departments have become as militarized as their city counterparts–has received scant attention. And that’s strange, because if we as a society think of universities as idyllic and utopian, we should be even more concerned that the best communities we’ve created are still populated by armored tanks and grenade launchers.

In 1996, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1997. Reauthorized every year, the NDAA sets the budget for the Department of Defense in the upcoming fiscal year. The NDAA of Fiscal Year 1997, however, included a small section outlining an entirely new program: the 1033 program. The program, fiscally responsible but to some, irresponsible in the long-run, provides excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. It reduces waste, but also militarizes local police departments in a way that challenges some Americans’ notions of police as members and protectors of the community.

The 1033 program flew under the radar of American national consciousness for a long time–that is, until August 2014. In August, protests erupted in Ferguson, MO and across the country after the white police officer accused of killing a young black man was not indicted. Responding to the unrest, the Ferguson Police Department used military equipment that they had received through the 1033 program to quell the protesters, creating a scene resembling a war zone.

Ferguson shed light on the 1033 program in a way that forced people to grapple with the program’s origins and implications in-depth. As many people now know, upwards of 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country have participated in the 1033 program since its inception. They have received armored personnel carriers and other military-grade equipment, just as the Ferguson Police Department did.

But it is not just city agencies. College police departments, like the one at your local university, can participate in the very same program that turned Ferguson into a war zone. If colleges meet certain standards of eligibility, they too can receive surplus military equipment. Shipping is the only cost.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) provides a particularly shocking example. With 60,000 students and a Division I football team, it can be a rowdy place. Thanks to the school’s participation in the 1033 program, it now has a modified grenade launcher in case a situation gets out of hand, and twenty-three M-16s, too.

Hinds Community College, a school of 11,000 students in Mississippi, also has a grenade launcher (though it lacks the Division I spirit at UCF). These are just two of the 124 schools across the country that have received excess military equipment through the 1033 program since its enactment.

Of course, that’s just one end of the spectrum. Looking only at UCF and Hinds Community College paints a distorted image of how the 1033 program works at most schools. Emory University in Atlanta, for instance, received only protective helmets and night-vision goggles from the program, according to Beverly Cox, the school’s senior communications officer. Moreover, after the Georgia Department of Police determined that Emory, a private, non-governmental entity, was no longer eligible for the program, the Emory Police Department in late 2014 and early 2015 returned all “non-consumable items and equipment.”

It is easy to think about campus police militarization as a dichotomized, black and white issue. When I discovered that UCF received a grenade launcher and Troy University in Alabama acquired two humvees through 1033, my immediate response was: shut the program down. And indeed, scrolling through the full list of items that universities obtained through the program is frightening, to say the least. There are plenty of weapons that, to me, have no place on college campuses (including AK-47s, tanks and, of course, grenade launchers). But there are some pretty mundane items too: filing cabinets and typewriters, golf carts and fans. The solution must fall somewhere in the tricky area between black and white called grey. But which shade of grey, exactly?

Allegra Phox knows a lot about shades of grey in campus policing. At 19, she just finished up her sophomore year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts where she also served as a campaigns organizer for One Million Hoodies, a non-profit organization that works on campus police militarization. Phox says she doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with using military supplies on college campuses but also believes the program needs to be seriously revised if it is going to continue– and that revision includes removing all weapons from the repertoire of goods allowed to be exchanged.

Phox’s amendment makes sense: in many cases, campus police officers don’t have the same high level of training that specialized military forces do. With no oversight or accountability from the 1033 program regarding training requirements, campus police departments may not be prepared to safely use the equipment given to them unless they voluntarily decide to undergo training.

There are other constraints to consider, too. Phox emphasized that in order to safely store some equipment (like tanks) that is transferred through 1033, it may take 25 minutes or more for university police departments to access them. Even if a tank were ever needed on a college campus (which remains a dubious proposition at best), would it really be helpful 25 minutes after the incident began? Probably not.

Questions of weaponry aside, there remains an important conversation regarding the role of transparency and student input that no one seems to be talking about. Namely, what role should students play in determining whether or not their campus police departments become militarized? Do campus police departments have a moral obligation to at least inform the students of their participation in 1033 or similar programs?

The two students I spoke to at Emory University, both highly engaged individuals in campus political affairs, were familiar with the 1033 program but had no idea their university participated in it. Alexius Marcano, a 21-year-old rising senior studying political science and economics and president of the Young Democrats of Emory, said he “was not aware that [the Emory University Police Department] participated in the 1033 program, which is problematic on its own.”

Moreover, he contended that students have a right to know of the potential for violence at their university, whether that potential arises from crime or law enforcement itself.

Alex Reibman, another student at Emory, professed similar views. He started an organization on campus called Students for Police Accountability, which seeks to change the dynamic between law enforcement agencies and their communities. And yet, he too said he was “entirely unaware” that the Emory University Police Department participated in the 1033 program.

Despite Marcano and Reibman’s extensive knowledge of police militarization and the 1033 program specifically, they were both blind to their own university’s involvement in the program. Or perhaps, more accurately, the university blinded them from seeing the police department’s connection to 1033.

According to Cox, the senior communications officer at Emory University, the police department’s participation in the 1033 program was “an internal department process to attain additional equipment for training and general operations that would not have directly involved student input.”

If this were an internal decision not requiring (or desiring) student input, that would have been one thing. But there’s also the issue of transparency: not only were students not asked to participate in the decision-making process, they also were not told of its results–or even that it was happening.

Even when Emory recently withdrew from the program, neither the police department nor the university released a press statement or any other kind of notification. Furthermore, the Emory University Police Department website bears no notice of its now former participation in the program. And although Reibman praised the police department’s ongoing event series “Coffee with a Cop”–designed to encourage open communication to increase understanding between the Emory police and the Emory community–he had still never heard of Emory’s participation in the program.

And yet, maybe students shouldn’t have a say in whether their police departments become militarized. Or maybe they should. That’s not the point of this article.

The point is, no one’s talking about this facet of campus police militarization, or any facet, really. We never had the debate where we refused to let students choose whether or not their campuses should be militarized and then decided not to tell them that they were. We never discussed how campus police militarization affects issues of race and how race affects campus police militarization. We just kind of ended up here. But it’s time to start having those conversations.

And now seems a good a time as any to start talking: although the 1033 program has been reauthorized since its inception with minimal fanfare or debate, this time around might be different. Given the immense scrutiny the program has come under in the past year and as the 2016 election nears, this might be our one opportunity to really decide what we want the role of police to be for higher education. And it’s especially important that we get it right for colleges, which have always led the way as the gold standard for the rest of our communities.

In the end, campus police militarization comes down to the idea of excessiveness. The amount and strength of the weapons available to colleges screams excessive, as does their potential to inflict harm. The level of training required for military-grade weaponry seems excessively underwhelming, and so does the number of students aware that their campus police departments are militarized. And lest we forget the military, which clearly procures weapons and equipment at above-necessary rates (or else there would be no surplus to pass on to colleges). This, clearly, marks an excess– and one that we’d be remiss not to consider as well.

Yes, campus police militarization is full of excesses. But completely nixing it might not be the best solution either. As the old adage goes: everything in moderation. Clearly, Congress missed that memo when enacting the NDAA for fiscal year 1997 and with it, the 1033 program. But now it is time to reel the program back in, to shave off the excess fat and give the program the careful scrutiny it warranted so long ago but never received. Our students and colleges–bastions of hope for a more perfect future–deserve it, and so do we.

Get updates on these issues and more! Sign up to receive email updates on the latest actions, events, and updates impacting 18- to 35-year-olds.