The proliferation of federal agencies with armed agents is one of the most worrisome aspects of the growth in government. Just last summer the EPA carried out an armed raid on a mine in Alaska to enforce the Clean Water Act — a bit of government intimidation that residents say was totally unnecessary:
It looks like a took a Congressional hearing in Washington, DC to get the ball moving, but Alaska Governor Sean Parnell announced last Thursday, the same day as a hearing on the issue, that a special counsel will investigate the EPA’s armed raid over the summer of the mining town of Chicken, Alaska (population 7 at the last census). The agency sent a heavily armed team eight strong over possible violations of the Clean Water Act, an act the miners said amounted to intimidation. Residents questioned the need for armed agents to participate in what amounted to a water safety check, as well as the public safety threat the action posed.
And who can forget the Gibson Guitar raid by armed agents of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The EPA, the USFWS…the Department of Education? It’s getting ridiculous — and frightening.
It may come as a surprise to many U.S. taxpayers, but a slew of federal agencies — some whose responsibilities seem to have little to do with combating crime — carry active law enforcement operations.
Here’s a partial list:
- The U.S. Department of Education
- The Bureau of Land Management (200 uniformed law enforcement rangers and 70 special agents)
- The U.S. Department of the Interior
- The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (with an armed uniformed division of 1.000)
- The National Park Service (made up of NPS protection park rangers and U.S. Park Police officers that operate independently)
- The Environmental Protection Agency (200 special agents)
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (224 special agents)
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
That’s right, NOAA — the folks who forecast the weather, monitor the atmosphere and keep tabs on the oceans and waterways — has its own law enforcement division. It has a budget of $65 million and consists of 191 employees, including 96 special agents and 28 enforcement officers who carry weapons.
“There’s no question there’s been a proliferation of police units at the federal level,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project On Criminal Justice for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. “To me, it’s been a never-ending expansion, a natural progression, if you will, of these administrative agencies always asking for bigger budgets and a little bit more power.”
It’s been estimated the U.S. has some 25,000 sworn law enforcement officers in departments not traditionally associated with fighting crime. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and in a tabulation compiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2011, 3,812 criminal investigators are working in areas other than the U.S. departments of Treasury, Justice, Defense and Homeland Security.
Lynch says it’s hard to tell how much money federal agencies spend on their respective law enforcement divisions.
Oftentimes, the armed agents appear to be used more for intimidation than law enforcement. When armed EPA agents come on your property to cite you for violating the Clean Water Act, or because you’ve run afoul of wetlands regulations, you’re probably not going to give them any lip or backtalk. And you will be more inclined to cooperate.
But what does the NOAA need with 96 armed agents? They predict hurricanes and other severe storms, which is very valuable and saves lives, but it’s hard to see a mission for a law enforcement branch of the agency.
“NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement protects marine wildlife and habitat by enforcing domestic laws and international treaty requirements designed to ensure these global resources are available for future generations,” NOAA spokesman David Miller said in an email to New Mexico Watchdog, pointing out that the division has existed since 1970. “Our special agents and enforcement officers ensure compliance with the nation’s marine resource laws and take enforcement action when these laws are violated.”
They may have had an armed division since 1970, but I bet they didn’t have nearly 100 armed agents. This is, in classic terms, mission creep. And it’s especially true for most agencies after 9/11:
But many other federal agencies established their own after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the FBI shifted its attention to tackling terrorism, and Congress gave permanent powers to inspectors general in more than two dozen agencies.
By last count, 25 agencies with law enforcement divisions fall under their respective offices of inspectors general.
With their growth has come criticism that officers are becoming overly militarized.
“The whole notion of police operations these days, that they’re dressed to kill, that they’re up against an enemy, is wrong,” Johnson said. “Citizens are not the enemy.”
We have what amounts to a national police force. The FBI is severely constrained by statute as to what kind of crimes for which they can intervene. The EPA, Education Department, NOAA and most other agencies have few, if any restrictions and can bend and shape the law to interpret a mandate just about any way they wish.
Congress has had hearings on police powers for individual agencies but the broad problem of militarizing the federal government has not been examined. It’s time this worrisome growth in armed federal agencies is brought before the people and Congress get busy reigning the practice in.