The use of tactical weapons and gear by cops in Ferguson, Missouri, in a show of force against crowds protesting the shooting of an unarmed black teen by an officer has sparked a debate about police militarization and cast a spotlight on the Pentagon's equipment transfer program.
Police departments across the country increasingly participate in the Defense Logistics Agency's so-called Excess Property Program. The effort, also known as the 1033 program, dates to the early 1990s and authorizes the Pentagon to transfer to local law enforcement agencies hand-me-down weapons and equipment, from clothing and sleeping bags to computers and digital cameras to guns and armored trucks.
Since its inception, the program has transferred more than $5 billion worth of defense equipment and supplies to more than 8,000 local law enforcement agencies, according to the DLA's Disposition Services website.
The trend picked up dramatically after terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The value of transfers increased more than tenfold within the past decade, from 34,708 transfers worth $33 million in 2006 to 51,779 transfers worth $420 million last year, according to an article by Niraj Chokshi of The Washington Post.
During the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military spent almost $50 billion buying a fleet of 20,000 blast-resistant trucks, known as Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, to protect troops from deadly roadside bombs. Now, hundreds of the hulking vehicles belong to local police departments.
The program's website includes among the inventory available for transfer such guns as the M-16A2 assault rifle, M-14 rifle and M-1911 .45-caliber pistol, such vehicles as the iconic Humvee utility vehicle and MRAP, and even aircraft and boats.
In an e-mail to Military.com, Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the defense agency, said weapons account for only 5 percent of the transfers and tactical vehicles even less, less than 1 percent. She also noted how the congressionally mandated program was designed to aid communities requesting help with counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities.
The Ferguson police department does participate in the program, McCaskill said, but to date it has only received a trailer, a generator and two non-armored Humvees.
Even so, the sight of the police department's Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, team members donning assault rifles and camouflage on an urban street in Missouri has drawn backlash from the community and civil-rights activists.
Kara Dansky, a senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's Center for Justice and author of the report, "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," said her research shows that the vast majority of paramilitary police raids are for serving search warrants and other "ordinary" law enforcement purposes; just 7 percent were for a hostage situation or other actual emergencies.
"More often than not, these violent raids are conducted to serve warrants in search of drugs, disproportionately affecting people of color, despite the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at roughly the same rates," she wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. "And the militarization of policing is dangerous. Paramilitary weapons and equipment escalates the risk of violence and threatens public safety."
Louis Anemone, a former chief of the New York Police Department, argues that surplus military gear is a good deal for cops and taxpayers. He oversaw the department's acquisition from the Army of field ambulances, gas masks with filters for chemical and biological toxins, among other equipment.
"Each piece filled a void in the department's inventory, and saved the taxpayers money," he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. "If technology, equipment, weapons and/or training is available at little or no cost, it would be malfeasance for a city or a department not to seize that opportunity."