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After Pouring Billions Into Militarization of U.S. Cops, Congress Weighs Limits

Protesters mobilizing across the country against racism and excessive force by police have been countered by law enforcement officers more heavily armed than ever. Over the past two decades, many police departments have legally acquired guns and vehicles intended for military use in wartime combat. But the massive nationwide protests have made apparent how police can use this equipment against U.S. citizens in large cities and small towns alike.

Three federal programs have allowed local and state law enforcement to arm itself with military equipment. Since 1997, the Defense Department has transferred excess or unused equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies. Departments have acquired more than $7 billion worth of guns, helicopters, armored vehicles and ammunition under the program.

The transfers were limited under the Obama administration but re-expanded under President Donald Trump in 2017. Now Congress is considering reining it in again. On Monday a bipartisan group of senators announced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would again limit the types of items the Defense Department can transfer to law enforcement.

But that effort, if successful, is unlikely to touch an even bigger source of advanced weapons accessible to civilian police. Two Department of Homeland Security initiatives established in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks have given state and local law enforcement agencies billions more to buy equipment without the rules and restrictions of the Defense Department program.

Federal Funding to Law Enforcement

Department of Homeland Security grants overshadow the more heavily scrutinized Defense Department program

$24.3B

Grants allocated

through DHS

$7.4B

Equipment value

distributed through DoD

$24.3B

Grants allocated

through DHS

$7.4B

Equipment value

distributed through DoD

$24.3B

Grants allocated

through DHS

$7.4B

Equipment value

distributed

through DoD

$7.4B

Equipment value

distributed

through DoD

$24.3B

Grants allocated

through DHS

$24.3B

Grants allocated

through DHS

$7.4B

Equipment value

distributed

through DoD

Source: FEMA, Defense Logistics Agency

Because of the Defense Department program, authorized by Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act, more than 6,500 law enforcement agencies across the country currently possess more than $1.8 billion worth of equipment.

Total value of currently-held equipment transfers, per capita

Tennessee and Alabama have received the most in equipment value per capita in the country.

AK

ME

$4

$7

VT

NH

MA

$3

$3

$1

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

WI

MI

NY

CT

RI

$5

$7

$4

$15

$9

$8

$5

$2

$6

$2

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IL

IN

OH

PA

NJ

$5

$8

$7

$8

$4

$3

$7

$6

$2

$5

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

MD

DE

$4

$3

$5

$4

$5

$8

$8

$1

$3

AZ

NM

KS

AR

MS

TN

VA

NC

$13

$11

$2

$12

$6

$20

$3

$5

OK

LA

AL

GA

SC

$7

$6

$18

$6

$15

HI

TX

FL

$0

$5

$5

AK

ME

$4

$7

VT

NH

MA

$3

$3

$1

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

WI

MI

NY

CT

RI

$5

$7

$4

$15

$9

$8

$5

$2

$6

$2

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IL

IN

OH

PA

NJ

$5

$8

$7

$8

$4

$3

$7

$6

$2

$5

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

MD

DE

$4

$3

$5

$4

$5

$8

$8

$1

$3

AZ

NM

KS

AR

MS

TN

VA

NC

$13

$11

$2

$12

$6

$20

$3

$5

OK

LA

AL

GA

SC

$7

$6

$18

$6

$15

HI

TX

FL

$0

$5

$5

AK

ME

$4

$7

VT

NH

MA

$3

$3

$1

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

WI

MI

NY

CT

RI

$5

$7

$4

$15

$9

$8

$5

$2

$6

$2

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IL

IN

OH

PA

NJ

$5

$8

$7

$8

$4

$3

$7

$6

$2

$5

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

MD

DE

$4

$3

$5

$4

$5

$8

$8

$1

$3

AZ

NM

KS

AR

MS

TN

VA

NC

$13

$11

$2

$12

$6

$20

$3

$5

OK

LA

AL

GA

SC

$7

$6

$18

$6

$15

TX

FL

HI

$5

$5

$0

Source: Defense Logistics Agency

Since 2003, states and metro areas have received $24.3 billion from two DHS grant programs, which have little oversight. The State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) and the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) were intended to provide local agencies with tools necessary to combat terrorism, and have been used for projects ranging from increasing surveillance to securing water treatment facilities. Of the few rules attached to the money, one requires that at least 25% of those funds be put toward law-enforcement terrorism-prevention activities, though states regularly exceed that.

After the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri—spurred by the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a police officer—testimony at a Senate hearing on the militarized police response identified $9.4 million worth of equipment bought in St. Louis County with DHS preparedness funds. During the hearing, a DHS grant administrator acknowledged that neither the DHS nor the state could determine with certainty if any DHS-funded equipment was used during the protests.

In 2020, the DHS plans to give $1.03 billion to state, local and tribal agencies through these programs, a $25 million increase over the year before.

DHS grant money in 2019, per capita

New York state and New York City lead in receiving grant money from the DHS’s SHSP and UASI programs.

AK

ME

$6

$3

VT

NH

MA

$7

$3

$3

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

WI

MI

NY

CT

RI

$2

$2

$4

$5

$2

$1

$1

$13

$1

$4

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IL

IN

OH

PA

NJ

$2

$3

$7

$5

$1

$7

$1

$1

$2

$3

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

MD

DE

$5

$1

$1

$2

$1

$1

$2

$2

$4

AZ

NM

KS

AR

MS

TN

VA

NC

$3

$2

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

OK

LA

AL

GA

SC

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

HI

TX

FL

$5

$2

$1

AK

ME

$6

$3

VT

NH

MA

$7

$3

$3

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

WI

MI

NY

CT

RI

$2

$2

$4

$5

$2

$1

$1

$13

$1

$4

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IL

IN

OH

PA

NJ

$2

$3

$7

$5

$1

$7

$1

$1

$2

$3

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

MD

DE

$5

$1

$1

$2

$1

$1

$2

$2

$4

AZ

NM

KS

AR

MS

TN

VA

NC

$3

$2

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

OK

LA

AL

GA

SC

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

HI

TX

FL

$5

$2

$1

AK

ME

$6

$3

VT

NH

MA

$7

$3

$3

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

WI

MI

NY

CT

RI

$2

$2

$4

$5

$2

$1

$1

$13

$1

$4

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IL

IN

OH

PA

NJ

$2

$3

$7

$5

$1

$7

$1

$1

$2

$3

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

MD

DE

$5

$1

$1

$2

$1

$1

$2

$2

$4

AZ

NM

KS

AR

MS

TN

VA

NC

$3

$2

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

OK

LA

AL

GA

SC

$1

$1

$1

$1

$1

HI

TX

FL

$5

$2

$1

Source: FEMA

The Defense Department program provides excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies for only the cost of shipping and maintenance. This makes it possible for even smaller departments to possess sometimes exorbitantly expensive items like mine-resistant vehicles or aircraft.

But the available data are imperfect. Each item’s value is listed at the price it was acquired at, which may be outdated. The data provide no context on how police use the equipment, and non-controlled items like office supplies aren’t counted after the first year.

Researchers debate that the military equipment can shift the culture and organization of police departments to behave more aggressively. Some studies have found that increased requests for the equipment led to more people being killed by police, as well as more violence against police officers. Others have found little impact on police aggression.

Researchers have also found that seeing militarized police in the news can diminish police reputation. And use of excessive force by law enforcement in initial protests only appeared to have turned more people out to demonstrations against police brutality.

Among all the items the police have either bought with grant money or received through the Section 1033 program, helicopters, mine-resistant vehicles and military-style weapons have been some of the most visible additions to law enforcement arsenals. Data for how departments spend DHS money is limited, but here’s where the Defense Department has distributed items around the country.

Helicopters

Helicopters have been used to observe protests from the sky, and even to scatter protesters by flying low enough for their blades to kick up wind on the ground. The cost of helicopters is prohibitive to some departments, but 123 departments currently possess 292 observation helicopters.

helicopters
292
Stations with helicopters
123 out of 6,522
Total value
$35,483,311
Median value
$92,290

U.S. Park police

WASHINGTON, DC

Los Angeles

Police Department

SANTA MONICA, CA

New York Police Department

NEW YORK, NY

New York Police

NEW YORK, NY

U.S. Park police

WASHINGTON, DC

Los Angeles Police

SANTA MONICA, CA

NEW YORK, NY

WASHINGTON, DC

SANTA MONICA, CA

NEW YORK, NY

WASHINGTON, DC

SANTA MONICA, CA

U.S. Park police

WASHINGTON, DC

Los Angeles Police Department

SANTA MONICA, CA

New York Police Department

NEW YORK, NY

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Tampa

Houston

Anchorage

Miami

Source: Defense Logistics Agency

Mine-resistant vehicles

Mine-resistant vehicles became a visible sign of police force in recent protests in Detroit, Cincinnati and Bellevue, Washington. More than 1,000 law enforcement agencies across the country possess a mine-resistant vehicle (often referred to as an MRAP).

mine-resistant vehicles
1,099
Stations with mine-resistant vehicles
1,029 out of 6,522
Total value
$744,488,353
Median value
$705,421

Detroit Police

DETROIT, MI

Hamilton County

Police SWAT

CINCINNATI, OH

North Sound Metro SWAT

SEATTLE, WA

Detroit Police

DETROIT, MI

North Sound Metro SWAT

SEATTLE, WA

Hamilton County SWAT

CINCINNATI, OH

DETROIT, MI

SEATTLE, WA

CINCINNATI, OH

DETROIT, MI

SEATTLE, WA

CINCINNATI, OH

Detroit Police

DETROIT, MI

Hamilton County

Police SWAT

CINCINNATI, OH

North Sound Metro SWAT

SEATTLE, WA

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

Houston

New Orleans

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

New York

Detroit

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Tampa

Houston

Anchorage

Miami

Source: Defense Logistics Agency

Guns

Rifles and their accessories, like magazine cartridges and sights, are the most commonly distributed items in the Defense Department program. About 75,000 guns distributed through the program are currently in the hands of law enforcement, including several gauges of rifles, shotguns and glock pistols.

guns
66,375
Stations with guns
4,507 out of 6,522
Total value
$26,134,165
Median value
$499

St. Paul Police

ST. PAUL, MN

Miami-Dade Police

MIAMI, FL

Minneapolis Police

MINNEAPOLIS, MN

LA County Sheriff SWAT

SANTA MONICA, CA

North County Metro SWAT

BELLEVUE, WA

ST. PAUL, MN

MIAMI, FL

MINNEAPOLIS, MN

SANTA MONICA, CA

BELLEVUE, WA

ST. PAUL, MN

MIAMI, FL

SANTA MONICA, CA

BELLEVUE, WA

MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Miami-Dade Police

MIAMI, FL

LA County Sheriff SWAT

SANTA MONICA, CA

MP-5

MP-5

AR-15

St. Paul Police

ST. PAUL, MN

AR-15

North County Metro SWAT

BELLEVUE, WA

Minneapolis Police

MINNEAPOLIS, MN

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Phoenix

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Houston

Tampa

Anchorage

Honolulu

Miami

Seattle

Minneapolis

Boston

Detroit

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

Washington, D.C.

Denver

St. Louis

Los Angeles

Atlanta

Dallas

New Orleans

Tampa

Houston

Anchorage

Miami

Source: Defense Logistics Agency