Do police need tear gas and tanks? One state senator doesn’t think so.

A vehicle resembling a tank rolled through Albany’s South End on May 30, an officer in riot gear perched at the top scanning through the fumes of tear gas to shoot protesters indiscriminately with rubber bullets. 

It’s an image few ever expected to see in Albany. But the sight has become increasingly familiar. 

The Albany Police Department again deployed tear gas on June 1st around Henry Johnson and Central avenues, while also blasting messages about a curfew. Passersby shielded their eyes, bent down, coughing uncontrollably. 

The fumes wafted into living rooms, kitchens, nurseries. 

Then Saratoga Springs police used an armored vehicle, and allegedly pepper spray balls, to violently break up a Black Lives Matter Protest earlier this month.

Tear gas is banned for use in war as part of the Geneva Conventions, but police are allowed to use it on civilians in the United States. 

During a community meeting in the wake of the protests, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Police Chief Eric Hawkins admitted that the tear gas use might have violated their own protocols

While violent protests subsided in Albany, they continued elsewhere. Even when confronted with non-violent protests, police departments across the United States, and especially in New York City, liberally used pepper spray and tear gas as well as beatings to control crowds. During protests in Louisville, journalists were repeatedly shot in the head with rubber bullets by men clad in riot gear.

This year has served as a crash course on just how much military gear police departments across the country have at their fingertips, and just how willing they are to deploy it against the people they are tasked with serving and protecting. 

It was these images that inspired Sen. Alessandra Biaggi of the Bronx to propose legislation that would prevent police departments across New York State from accessing the federal government’s surplus military supply.

She introduced a separate piece of legislation that would ban the use of chemical weapons, except for pepper spray, by law enforcement agencies. Senator Jessica Ramos has a bill that would ban police use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a number of other Democratic congressional representatives introduced a bill to ban tear gas used by police in early June. 

Photo of Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Rep. Alexandria Ocassio-Cortez from Biaggi’s Twitter feed.

The Price of 1033 

The federal program known as 1033 has doled out more than $7.4 billion in equipment to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies–including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Established in 1997, the program was designed to give law enforcement agencies access to gear used in combating the drug trade and terrorism. But critics say it’s given law enforcement powerful tools that they simply don’t need and that should not be deployed in residential communities. 

“Federal surplus programs have allowed police to receive military-grade equipment like tanks, armored drones, and grenades, which they have disproportionately deployed in Black and brown communities,” says Biaggi. “The use of military equipment in U.S. localities does nothing to advance public safety or even protect police officers –– it only incites violence and terror in our neighborhoods.” 

Biaggi says there appears to be a mindset in police departments that the people they serve are enemy combatants and the neighborhoods they patrol are war zones. “Having access to military-grade weapons seems to enhance that perspective,” says Biaggi. 

In 2014, The Marshall Project used Petagon data to detail exactly what equipment departments across the country received and how much it cost taxpayers. (The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, news site dedicated to covering the criminal justice system.) 

As of that accounting, New York Police Departments had received $26,498,384.00 since the start of the program. The Albany Police Department took possession of a “utility truck” worth $56,762. As of 2014, The Albany Sheriff’s Department had taken in three “utility trucks” valued at $129,105, a “mine resistant vehicle” valued at $658,000, ten 5.56 MM rifles valued at $4,490, and twenty 7.62 MM rifles worth $,2,760. 

Representatives of Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and the Albany Police Department did not return requests for comment. However, Albany Sheriff Craig Apple did. 

Apple says 1033 is critical to the work of local police departments. “I’m concerned politicians are making rash decisions because of the odd times we’re in,” says Apple. “They are trying to placate people. We should be having a conversation about what we use these things for, not making a law telling us we can’t use them.”

What does Apple think a “mine resistant” vehicle is good for in Albany County? He says they’ve used the vehicle to ram into a home to end a violent standoff “peacefully.” He says the military vehicles could also be used to evacuate school children from a classroom during an active shooter situation. 

Shawn Young, co-founder of All of Us, a Schenectady-based activist organization that has led protests and demonstrations across the Capital Region since forming this year and has made police demilitarization one of its 13 demands, says ending 1033 is critical to police reform. 

“The idea that the police force or sheriff’s department is preventative is a false narrative. Grenades and weaponized drones are extreme acts of violence and reactionary, not preventative,” says Young. “The very presence of military force does not keep people safe. It does not deter acts of violence. What it does do is tell the community that there must be violence or the threat of violence; that it is violence that solves violence. And this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Apple, who perused Biaggi’s legislation, says he agrees that some of the items provided by 1033 are not useful. “We don’t need camouflage; that doesn’t make sense for us. We don’t need combat-configured aircraft, and I don’t know any police department that does. We don’t need an armored drone; we have drones but not armored, and we don’t need grenades. Teargas is useful.” 

For Biaggi, 1033 exemplifies and compounds the very issues that Black Lives Matter is trying to address. “These weapons are disproportionately used in Black and brown neighborhoods. And we know, thanks to a study of over 9,000 law enforcement agencies, that these weapons do not decrease violence.” 

The study Biaggi references found that militarization fails to reduce crime and fails at increasing the safety of officers themselves. What it does seem to do is injure the reputation of those police departments in the eyes of the communities they serve. 

Gassing Neighborhoods 

Nearly 1,300 physicians issued a letter in June urging police agencies stop using “tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.” Underprivileged neighborhoods are statistically more likely to be subject to increased pollution, higher rates of asthma and bronchitis.

 The American Lung Association says that “Recent studies have looked at the mortality in the Medicaid population and found that those who live in predominantly black or African American communities suffered greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in communities that are predominately white.”

“The use of tear gas in the middle of a respiratory pandemic could be deadly,” says Biaggi. “Its use is frankly irresponsible. These agencies are here to protect the community, but they are essentially poisoning people with tear gas. This stuff has been banned for use on battlefields for decades, but we can use it on civilians?” 

Next Steps 

Both of Biaggi’s bills sit before the Senate’s rules committee and currently they both enjoy the support of only four cosponsors, all of whom represent districts in New York City. Representatives of the Albany Police Department and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan didn’t respond to requests for comment. We’ve reached out to local legislators to see where they stand and we’ll update this article when we hear back. 

Biaggi says it will probably take massive public support to get the legislation moving.  

“I would have liked to have passed these bills two weeks ago. But we’ve seen that things like 50A repeal (which removed a roadblock to accessing  the personnel records of police officers) require a groundswell of people protesting every single day. I want people to come to the streets to make their voices heard. But it shouldn’t take that to do the right thing. It shouldn’t take a groundswell of national proportions to do the right thing. You shouldn’t need political cover.”

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