The Militarization of American Police Departments

Email a Friend
A police officer watches over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Over the last decade many state and local law enforcement agencies have become increasingly militarized. Kara Dansky, a senior counsel at the ACLU and one of the authors of the report War Comes Home, explains how and why federal programs have created incentives for law enforcement to use paramilitary tactics and military grade weapons, including mine-resistant armored vehicles.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri clashed with heavily armed police this week. “What we’re seeing in Ferguson today is, in many ways, a reflection of the militarization of policing that’s been happening across America for decades,” Dansky said. The ACLU now estimates that there are 50,000 paramilitary police raids across the United States each year. That’s about 135 raids every day.

Many of these raids are being carried out in order to serve search warrants, often for drugs. “We found a shocking number of incidents where the police would raid a home, traumatize people within the home and not find the weapons or drugs they claimed would be there,” Dansky said. These raids also disproportionately occur in communities of color.

Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, state and local law enforcement agencies are being given military grade equipment, free of charge. This can include guns, helicopters, night vision goggles and, Dansky added, “really anything that the military has in its arsenal that [the DoD] deems necessary for law enforcement.” The ACLU has identified that more than 600 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been placed with police departments around the country.  In addition to receiving free military equipment, state and local law enforcement agencies can also apply for Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security grants to purchase weapons directly from manufacturers.

Dansky noted that police are being trained to view towns as battlefields and operate as though they’re going into combat, and that police departments have a built-in incentive to use military grade equipment. “The program requires police departments that get this kind of weaponry to use it within one year,” she said.