The town of Ferguson, Missouri saw massive riots this weekend in response to the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, and cops showed up with a heavily armed SWAT team.
Members of this police force in a town of 21,000 carried 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine. They wore body armour, stood in front of a Ballistic Engineered Armoured Response Counter Attack Truck (known as a BearCat), and would have been mistaken for soldiers if they weren’t wearing “Police” patches, as Business Insider’s Paul Szoldra wrote.
This is just one of America’s highly militarized police forces, as detailed in a sobering report from the American Civil Liberties Union that came out in June. That report reveals how the U.S. military transfers a shocking amount of military-grade equipment to local cops who often misuse these tools.
The Defence Department gives this military-grade equipment to cops through its 1033 program, which has the motto “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.” The idea is that police can repurpose equipment once used on the battlelines to fight the drug war and terrorists at home.
Back in 1990, the military transferred only about $US1 million worth equipment through this program, according to the ACLU. That number ballooned to nearly $US450 million by 2013, suggesting America’s police officers are militarized than ever. The problem with this shift is that military-grade equipment can pack more punch than local cops really need.
“As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” the ACLU noted.
That report found the state of Arizona had a particularly large cache of military weapons. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s office alone 120 assault rifles, five armoured vehicles, and 10 helicopters, according to the ACLU report.
These toys often encourage cops to adopt a “warrior” mindset and use force against citizens more than they really need to, the ACLU says. Armed to the teeth with semiautomatic weapons and flashbang grenades, cops too often burst into people’s homes and carry out unnecessary SWAT raids. In the process, SWAT teams killed a 26-year-old mother holding her infant son in Ohio, and they critically injured a Georgia toddler with a grenade.
In Gwinett County, Georgia, the SWAT team received nearly 60 military-grade semiautomatic weapons through the 1033 program between July 10, 2010 and Oct. 6, 2013. That SWAT team broke down doors roughly half the time it was deployed, sometimes damaging unarmed people’s property, according to the ACLU.
Aside from receiving equipment through 1033, cities also use grants from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase military-grade equipment. The city of Keene, New Hampshire bought a BearCat to combat terrorism. The city’s application went on to cite Keene’s pumpkin festival as a possible terrorist threat, the ACLU report notes.
While cops began gearing up in the name of fighting terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, the trend actually began as part of the drug war of the 1980s, Radley Balko has written in the Huffington Post. SWAT teams began to proliferate to crack down on drugs. Then, after 9/11, police got an influx of funding for military-grade equipment, Balko noted. The military and police began to cooperate more.
“The military’s job is to annihilate a foreign enemy,” Balko wrote. “Cops are charged with keeping the peace, and with protecting the constitutional rights of American citizens and residents. It’s dangerous to conflate the two.”
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