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Why did police have military-grade equipment in the first place?

The federal government had been arming local police departments with military-grade equipment for decades through multiple federal schemes, including the 1033 program.

The 1033 program had transferred surplus military-grade equipment from the Pentagon to local police. But it didn’t provide training or oversight for the equipment’s use, although many local police departments provided their own training anyway.

The program was also loaded with what many experts view as a perverse incentive: to keep the equipment, local police must deploy it at least once within a year. This incentive, some experts argued, encouraged police to use the weapons even when they’re not necessary.

A police officer sits in an armored vehicle.
Police watch over demonstrators in Ferguson.
Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Law enforcement in Ferguson and surrounding St. Louis County have receivedseveral pieces of equipment through the 1033 program, including rifles, night vision goggles, and utility trucks. The mine-resistant trucks seen in Ferguson reportedly came from another unnamed source, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Public Safety told Newsweek.

The 1033 program is only one of several policies arming local police departments with this kind of equipment. Other programs from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice also subsidize or supply the gear to police.

Mother Jones’s Shane Bauer reported: “The Department of Defense has given $5.1 billion worth of equipment to state and local police departments since 1997, with even rural counties acquiring things like grenade launchers and armored personnel carriers. But Homeland Security has handed out grants worth eight times as much — $41 billion since 2002. The money is earmarked for counterterrorism, but DHS specifies that once acquired, the equipment can be used for any other law-enforcement purpose, from shutting down protests to serving warrants and executing home searches.”

The programs helped lead to a proliferation of SWAT teams across the country. With the new teams and equipment, local police have conducted more SWAT raids. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union found these raids are much more likely to hit predominantly black neighborhoods, while white neighborhoods are much less likely to be affected.

In response to outcry against police militarization following the events in Ferguson, the Obama administration ordered a comprehensive review of the policies that supplied local police departments with military-grade equipment. The administration eventually stopped the flow of heavy military-grade equipment — such as tanks and grenade launchers — to police, and imposed restrictions on lighter equipment.

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