Police in Ferguson, Missouri (photo: Jeff Roberson, Associated Press)
When Ferguson, Missouri, turned into a war zone last week, the entire country got a chance to see St. Louis County’s militarized police force, armed to the teeth and ready to confront the enemy.
Police forces across the country have used the threat of terrorism since 9/11 to justify amping up their purchase of military equipment with federal money to control conventional criminal activity. A New York Timesnational map of “military surplus gear” shows a hefty haul, dominated by assault rifles and night goggles, by California law enforcement agencies.
The map only shows free gear received through a U.S. Department of Defense program since 2006. At least $35 billion worth of equipment had been dispersed by end of 2011. Nationally, local law enforcement has received 93,763 assault weapons, 180,718 magazines of ammunition, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 432 armored mine-resistant vehicles and 435 other armored vehicles.
Los Angeles County counts 3,408 assault rifles, 1,696 pieces of body armor, 827 night vision pieces, four armored vehicles, three grenade launchers and three mine-resistant vehicles among its pickups. San Luis Obispo County, a much smaller venue, went big for night vision goggles (702). Sacramento County has a preference for assault rifles (797), but also has 17 attack helicopters, eight grenade launchers and a bunch of other stuff.
San Diego County pickups are dominated by night goggles (403) and assault rifles (156). Imperial County was satisfied with just 52 body armor pieces. Most every county in the state seems to have something, although San Francisco County does not have a presence on the map.
Along with the military gear, local police also began using military tactics and adopted a military mentality about dealing with criminal elements. What used to be a clear distinction between soldiers fighting an enemy on a foreign battlefield and peace officers serving their communities has noticeably blurred.
Earlier this year, Representative Alan Grayson, (D-Florida) introduced legislation to amend the annual defense appropriations bill and block the program. HR 4870 was defeated 355-62 in June. During debate, lawmakers argued that cash-strapped local law enforcement agencies would be devastated if they lost access to free military surplus.
The Huffington Post quoted Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Florida) as saying at the time, “This is absolutely ludicrous to think the equipment that’s utilized by law enforcement is utilized for any reason other than public safety.” Nugent is a former sheriff. Others argued that the weaponry was acquired in support of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s anti-terrorism efforts.
Grayson argued that “the weapons are often used by a majority to terrorize a minority” and asked, “Where is the terrorism on our streets? Instead, these weapons are being used to arrest barbers and to terrorize the general population,” he said. The congressman was referencing Florida’s 2010 SWAT raids in full battle dress of barber shops that led, according to the Times, to charges of “barbering without a license.”