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Why the feds are putting grenade launchers in the hands of local cops

Heavily armed police watch protestors in Ferguson, MO.
Heavily armed police watch protestors in Ferguson, MO.
Scott Olson

Confrontations between protestors and heavily armed police over the past several days in Ferguson, Missouri have left many observers wondering how suburban police departments come to have so much military-style equipment in the first place. The answer, roughly, is that in the 1990s, when federal, state and local governments were scrambling to win the "war on drugs" and fight high crime rates, the federal government started helping local police officers get military equipment.

That's still going on — and with the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the Obama administration, the Department of Defense finds itself with a lot of excess military equipment on its hands.

Put these two trends together, and you get a lot of local police departments and sheriff's offices asking for, and getting, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and M-16s.

story in the New York Times looks into where this equipment ends up — and how locals feel about equipment that was developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan ending up on their streets.

"It just seems like ramping up a police department for a problem we don't have," said Shay Korittnig, a father of two who spoke against getting the armored truck at a recent public meeting in Neenah(, WI). "This is not what I was looking for when I moved here, that my children would view their local police officer as an M-16-toting, SWAT-apparel-wearing officer."

The New York Times article reports that the Pentagon has sent local police departments "tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft" over the past several years. But that's actually just scratching the surface of the military equipment that local police departments can get.

Kara Dansky, an ACLU scholar who studies police militarization, says that there are three different federal programs that help local cops get military gear. The one covered by the Times is a Department of Defense program that directly transfers equipment to local law enforcement agencies. But there are two federal grant programs — one run through the Department of Justice, and one run through the Department of Homeland Security — that give local cops money to purchase their own equipment. And much of the equipment they buy is also military-style.

In the Times article, law enforcement officers make the case that criminals and terrorists are always innovating, so police need to innovate too. "I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid," says the police chief of Neenah, a small town in Wisconsin. (Neenah has a 9-foot-tall armored truck that came from the federal government; it hasn't had a murder in five years.) Some officers freely admit they're talking about worst-case scenarios that "may not ever happen," but say that their communities understand the need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario just in case.

But Dansky, and others, point out that isn't what actually happens once police get military gear. Instead, when they have something, they feel the need to use it — one of the main programs through which police departments get military equipment formally requires use within one year, and even in the absence of such requirements the psychological and institutional pressure to use new toys is hard to resist. This has already happened with the proliferation of SWAT teams around the country, also supported by federal funds and training. When more police departments get SWAT teams, they conduct more SWAT raids. And as they conduct more SWAT raids, Dansky says, "increasingly they are being used for everyday warrant service," according to surveys of police.

Historically, Dansky says, "The militarization of policing has occurred almost in the absence of public oversight." Right now, there are some public records for the program the Times covers that gives cops equipment, but very little for the programs that give cops money to buy equipment.

But the Times article shows the public might be paying more attention: residents in Neenah are opposed to their department's use of military gear, and a county in Maine managed to persuade its sheriff to withdraw a request for a "mine-resistant vehicle." If residents are paying more attention to what equipment ends up in the hands of local cops, they might be able to provide the oversight that isn't possible at the federal level.