Over the past few decades, the federal government has helped equip local and state police departments with military-grade equipment to help them fight the war on drugs and war on terror. But those programs have now come under sharp criticism.
The criticisms blew up during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown. Police often deployed military-grade equipment — such as tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and mine-resistant armored trucks — against largely peaceful protesters, sometimes agitating the situation and causing demonstrations to unnecessarily escalate into tense and even violent conflicts.
Police obtained much of the equipment at little to no cost through several federal programs. The 1033 program, for example, transferred surplus military-grade equipment from the Pentagon to police, but it didn’t require any training or oversight for the equipment’s use. It was also loaded with what many experts viewed as a perverse incentive: Police had to deploy the equipment at least once within a year to keep it, potentially motivating them to use the gear when it wasn’t necessary.
The federal government also provided equipment through grants from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice.
In response to the controversy in Ferguson, the Obama administration imposed restrictions on the federally provided equipment. But the Trump administration reversed the new rules.
The militarization of police has become a major point of contention following the shooting of Michael Brown. The military gear played into the idea that police in the US are out of control — not just in how many people they kill and the racial disparities underlying the killings, but also in the equipment that law enforcement will use and the lengths that they’ll go through to suppress protesters and critics.