Army, Navy, Air Force, EPA!

by Greg Walcher on January 6, 2017

From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of – Federal Triangle? If sending Marines, Navy Seals, and Delta force to the world’s trouble spots doesn’t work, we could also send the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Both agencies have military equipment, weapons, SWAT teams, drones, and highly trained “Special Agents;” so do many others not traditionally considered law enforcement agencies.

EPA Special Agents making an arrest, from an EPA promotional video

EPA Special Agents making an arrest, from an EPA promotional video

A new report from transparency watchdog group Open the Books documents an explosion in the number of federal agencies with gun-toting, badge-wielding law enforcement divisions. The report, called “The Militarization of America” details the astonishing scope of federal police power. There are now over 200,000 federal officers with arrest and firearm authority, in a whopping 67 different federal agencies.

That is remarkable when you consider there are only 182,000 U.S. Marines. Those 67 federal agencies – 53 of which are not law enforcement agencies – spent a total of $1.48 billion on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment between 2006 and 2014.

We all understand that the EPA is tasked with enforcing environmental laws. But does it really need a full-blown military-style police force? Congress granted the EPA police powers in 1988, but not with SWAT teams in mind. Even now, the agency says its Criminal Enforcement Program “enforces the nation’s laws by investigating cases, collecting evidence, conducting forensic analyses, and providing legal guidance to assist in the prosecution of criminal conduct that threatens people’s health and the environment.” Well yes, but also by midnight raids with Swat teams and attack dogs, confiscating private property, hauling people off to jail for accidentally spilling a barrel of oil, and other “enforcement” horrors.

During the period covered by the Open the Books report, EPA spent over $3 million on military equipment, including guns and ammo, tanks, drones, helicopters, camouflage, night-vision goggles, and other military hardware. And cops – EPA spent $715 million altogether on its Criminal Enforcement Program. APHIS spent even more – $4.77 million on guns, ammo, and military equipment, as well as the salaries and expenses of 140 cops. At EPA, there are almost 200 of these “Special Agents,” and the agency estimates that each one costs taxpayers $216,000 per year in salary, travel, equipment, training and other expenses.

Other agencies with military-style equipment and cops include the Department of Commerce, Internal Revenue Service, Food and Drug Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution (guards to protect museum artifacts are one thing, but drones, helicopters, and SWAT teams?). The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland has its own cops with a fleet of Crown Victoria police cars, as do the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Library of Congress, National Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Fisheries Service, and even the Government Printing Office.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the folks who forecast the weather, monitor the atmosphere and keep tabs on the oceans and waterways — has its own law enforcement division. The New Mexico Watchdog organization reports that NOAA’s law enforcement section has a budget of $65 million and consists of 191 employees, including 96 special agents and 28 enforcement officers who carry weapons.

Do all these agencies really need police with guns, badges, arresting authority, and military equipment? Or are we becoming an over-policed society, as detailed in Radley Balko’s book, “The Rise of the Warrior Cop?” He chronicles the “proliferation of heavily armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war.”

These tactics made national news in August when a team of armed federal officials descended on the tiny mining town of Chicken, Alaska. The “Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force,” including EPA and six other agencies, showed up in full body armor and heavily armed to conduct an investigation “to look for possible violations of the Clean Water Act.” A later investigation by the State apparently concluded that there was nothing improper about such treatment, or about the strong-arm tactics of the agencies. The investigation does not appear to have questioned whether or not those particular government agencies should have police forces in the first place, only whether they acted appropriately for police.

In fact, over-policing is the inevitable consequence of too many police. I was in a cab recently, pulled over by the U.S. Capitol Police (one of 28 police departments in Washington) because the driver didn’t buckle up – an obvious threat to the security of the Capitol building that could not wait for the D.C. Metro Police.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a law-and-order advocate and understand that the rule of law is among America’s most important founding principles. But militarizing almost every department, even while many are having trouble performing their basic functions, does not make us safer. It compromises the core missions of numerous government agencies, sapping budget and personnel. In response to the Open the Books report, many EPA allies have pointed out that the numbers may be in error, that in fact there were coding errors resulting in some expenditures being listed for military equipment that may in fact have been spent on other things – quite possible, since data entry errors are common in government.

Whatever the dollar numbers really are, though, is a side issue. It really misses the point of whether or not all these agencies need such police forces at all. Maybe the EPA, APHIS, and NOAA should focus on a healthy environment, do their vitally important jobs, and if they see criminal behavior, call the police.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel December 30, 2016.

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