Texas schools, UT System have no business owning military vehicles

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Before the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, two months ago, many Americans were unaware of the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 Program. Shocking photographs of police officers launching military-grade tear gas into crowds and riding through the streets of Ferguson in armored vehicles flooded news outlets. These images were made more shocking by the subsequent realization that the 1033 Program, which is currently under review in Congress, has distributed surplus military supplies to more than 10,000 American communities and has armed several Central Texas agencies with military-grade vehicles and weaponry. Included in these state agencies are Central Texas school districts, as well as the UT System. 

Ten Texas public school districts have acquired 18 M-14 rifles, 25 automatic pistols and 4,500 rounds of ammunition in total. The UT System (not the University of Texas Police Department) has also acquired one mine-resistant, armored-protective vehicle and two other military trucks. The subject of providing schools with the materials some believe are needed to protect Texas’ youth is colored by gray areas, but it comes down to one question: Should we draw a line when it comes to the protection of our community’s campuses and youth? 

I cannot argue that Central Texas campuses and public school systems do not deserve the best protection that can be afforded to them. As any police officer would state, and as two police officers told me while I was writing my first column on militarization, the chief role of the police is to be prepared for any threat against communities.

The problem is that arming Texas school districts is not the best protection for anyone. The 1033 Program does not enforce standard orders or procedures for the use of military weapons and materials or designate training for their operation. Therefore, allowing such materials to be used by communities, especially school districts, is vulnerable to misuse. And of course, because the armored vehicles and weapons granted to law enforcement agencies by the 1033 Program were created for combat zones, the misuse of such materials is incredibly dangerous.

Some communities are beginning to forsake the materials granted to them by the Department of Defense. Central Texas school districts would do well to follow that lead. The city council of the college town Davis, California, ordered the police department to return the $700,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, known colloquially as an MRAP, which was given free of charge to the Davis Police Department. Despite the police chief’s statement that the vehicle was “perfect” for rescues and active shooter situations, the Davis City Council decided that its community is better served without it. This decision is unique, as it is the first community reported to have made a distinction between community interests and a law enforcement agency’s desire for such a machine. This is also a groundbreaking development in the militarization of local police forces because it highlights how little public outreach was attempted before the acquisition of the machine to gauge the community’s response.

Congress may decide soon that all communities are better off without surplus military equipment and the 1033 Program, which remains under review at President Barack Obama’s behest, but a line must be drawn now, especially with communities made vulnerable because of their young members. Fortunately, school shootings are so rare that they don’t warrant the attainment of so many weapons by Texas school districts. The reality is the campuses that have acquired these materials have no use for them. In the event of an emergency on one of the nine university campuses in the UT System, it could take hours for the UT System’s armored vehicle to reach the campus, and it could very well be too late for anything to be accomplished by its use. The risk that such materials pose to campuses outweighs the probability of their usefulness.

We must draw a line when it comes to protecting our communities: a line that separates the interests of communities and the wants of law enforcement agencies. Increased weaponry does not equate to safety. The 1033 Program only gives police officers the opportunity to misuse combat vehicles and weapons when the materials are not also accompanied by standard orders and protocols for officer training and use of the objects. Any misuse of combat materials is unacceptable and a true danger to us all. 

Smith is a history junior from Austin.  Follow her on Twitter @claireseysmith.