Ferguson and the militarization of America’s police

What happens when local and state police are given tools normally used by soldiers?

A street of strip malls by day, an all-out battlefield by night.  

Ferguson, Missouri, saw yet another night of violence Monday evening. Officials say protesters threw Molotov cocktails and fired guns, leaving police no choice but to respond.

Hours before, Missouri’s governor deployed the National Guard, with its first task being the defense of a police command center.

Local and state police took to the front lines with riot gear and armored vehicles — equipment purchased with grants from the Department of Homeland Security or donated by the Pentagon. 

Ferguson’s arsenal isn’t particularly unusual. The police department in Fort Myers, Florida, for example, owns a mine-resistant armored vehicle, or MRAP. There are 600 MRAPs in U.S. towns today. Also available to local and state police: Humvees, camouflage gear, machine guns and helicopters — blurring the lines between cop and soldier.

"The police are being trained to think of the communities that they're serving as battlegrounds, to think of the people they're supposed to be protecting and serving as wartime enemies," said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU. 

Much of the military gear used by local police is purchased through the Department of Defense's 1033 program. It sells the Pentagon’s leftover weapons to police departments, often at heavily discounted rates.

The program got its start in the 1980s as a way to help local officials struggling to control gang violence and fight the war on drugs. 

‘This kind of force that was once reserved for emergency situations – like when you're talking about hostage takings or active shooters – has spread all over the country because of these federal policies, and it’s now become the default use of force in far too many situations.’

Radley Balko

author, ‘Rise of the Warrior Cop’

After 9/11, the Pentagon program expanded dramatically. Thousands of cities and towns rushed to ensure they were ready for a terrorist attack, whether an attack seemed likely or not.

It may also explain the dramatic growth of the 1033 program, from about $1 million a year in the early 1990s to an estimated $752 million so far this year.

"This is the type of equipment that we feel like we need in certain situations to make sure that we go home to our families at night," said Steve Luce of the Indiana Sheriff's Association.

With new capabilities came new requirements. The feds can take back gear if police don’t use it.

That may explain why, nationwide, SWAT teams were used an estimated 3,000 times a year in the early 1980s and are now deployed about 50,000 times a year.

Few argue police should face unrest and looting without proper equipment. But with scenes of militarily equipped police battling citizens in Ferguson and elsewhere in the U.S., how much is too much?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

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