A Federal Effort to Reuse Military Gear Turned Cops Into Commandos

Tactical officers fire tear gas on Aug. 11 in Ferguson, Mo.

Photograph by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP Photo

The heavily militarized police force in a St. Louis suburb is hardly an anomaly. Local police departments across the country deploy not just military-style equipment but actual castoffs from the U.S. military.

Federal grant programs fund the police acquisition of military weapons and vehicles, and a U.S. law has sent more than $4 billion of surplus Pentagon gear to law enforcement over the past 17 years. Now protests following the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.—and the heavily armed response by local police—seem likely to spark a national debate on the militarization of law enforcement. Do local cops from from Maine to New Mexico need military rifles and armored personnel carriers to do their jobs?

“I know that many Americans have been deeply disturbed by images we’ve seen in the heartland of our country,” President Barack Obama said Thursday, urging calm amid the investigation of the Aug. 9 shooting. Police have said Brown fought with a police officer and tried to grab his service weapon, while witness have said the 18-year-old did not struggle with police and was surrendering when he was shot.

“The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky wrote today in a column for Time, calling for police agencies to be demilitarized. Another U.S. Senator, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, has said local law enforcement officials need to “demilitarize” the situation in Ferguson.

Given the images from Missouri, some veterans have observed that they patrolled foreign combat zones equipped with less armor than the police in Ferguson, which is northwest of St. Louis. The American Civil Liberties Union has also criticized the militarization of police forces, saying that such equipment leads to “a warrior mentality” that causes police to see citizens as enemies. In a June report (pdf) that analyzed police SWAT team deployments in 2011-12, the ACLU said that most of the military equipment is being used for routine drug searches and warrant executions.

The Defense Logistics Agency, part of the Defense Department, says it transferred more than $449 million worth of property from the U.S. military to some 8,000 law enforcement agencies last year. Congress enacted the transfer program, called 1033, in 1997 to help save taxpayers’ money by finding new life for stuff the Pentagon wasn’t using. The 1033 program sends surplus military gear for civilian purposes, to be used by other federal agencies, states, and local police departments. Plenty of it is mundane office equipment, such as printers, fax machines, and copiers. The high-profile—and controversial—goods include armored mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) trucks and M-16 assault rifles.

Part of the steady flow to civilians has been driven by the sheer amount of equipment the U.S. military has amassed. Washington’s heavy focus on narcotics in the 1990s gave way to the “global war on terror” after 2001, which meant a heavy buildup of military goods for use in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of that equipment is now back from war and not needed by the Pentagon.

One of the more popular items is the BearCat, a $225,000 armored transport built by Lenco Industries that is used by police SWAT teams. The truck, also used by the St. Louis County police in Ferguson, can carry 10 people and “is often used in hostile urban environments,” according to Lenco’s website. The company also posts notes of praise from law enforcement officers, such as this one from Sergeant Christopher Weaver of Tomah, Wis.:

“We used the BEARCAT to evacuate our three officers from the kill zone in front of the apartment. After removing the officers we drove the BEARCAT into the front yard of the apartment to protect our team while we evacuated the apartments on either side of the suspect. We evacuated a total of eight people from the two apartments. Eventually we developed a tactical plan to drive the BEARCAT along the apartment building, breach a window where one of our officers returned fire and then determine if the suspect was down inside the room. This plan was executed and officers inside the rescue hatch of the BEARCAT were able to cover the suspect, who was later determined to be deceased in the room, while an entry was conducted and the suspect was secured. The BEARCAT performed flawlessly in each of the three missions that we used it for and it provided an unparalleled level of safety for my team members, the officers who were pinned down, and the uninvolved citizens.”

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