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Why Do the Police Have Tanks? The Strange and Dangerous Militarization of the US Police Force

The federal government has supplied local police departments with military uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, and training.

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Use of these paramilitary units gradually increased throughout the 1970s, mostly in urban settings. The introduction of paramilitary units in America laid the foundation for the erosion of the barrier between police and military, a trend which accelerated in the 1980s under President Reagan, when the drug war was used as a pretext to make exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act.

In 1981, Congress passed the  Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act , which amended Posse Comitatus by directing the military to give local, state and federal law enforcement access to military equipment, research and training for use in the drug war.  Following the authorization of domestic police and military cooperation, the 1980s saw a  series of additional congressional and presidential maneuvers that blurred the line between soldier and police officer, ultimately culminating in a memorandum of understanding in 1994 between the US Department of Justice and Department of Defense. The agreement authorized the transfer of federal military technology to local police forces, essentially flooding civilian law enforcement with surplus military gear previously reserved for use during wartime.

Weber found that " Between 1995 and 1997  the Department of Defense gave 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers" to law enforcement around the country. But this was only the beginning.

In 1997, Congress, not yet satisfied with the flow of military hardware to local police, passed the  National Defense Authorization Security Act  which created the  Law Enforcement Support Program , an agency tasked with accelerating the transfer of military equipment to civilian police departments. Between January 1997 and October 1999 , the new agency facilitated the distribution of "3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment to over 11,000 domestic police agencies in all 50 states. By December 2005, that number increased to 17,000, with a purchase value of more than $727 million of equipment," says Balko.  Among the hand-me-downs, Balko counts: "253 aircraft (including six- and seven-passenger airplanes, and UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Huey helicopters), 7,856 M-16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles."

The military surplus program and paramilitary units feed off one another in a cyclical loop that has caused an explosive growth in militarized crime control techniques.  With all the new high-tech military toys the federal government has been funneling into local police departments, SWAT teams have inevitably multiplied and spread across American cities and towns in both volume and deployment frequency. Criminologist Peter Kraska  found that the frequency of SWAT operations soared from just 3,000 annual deployments in the early 1980s to an astonishing 40,000 raids per year by 2001, 75-80 percent of which were used to deliver search warrants.

Balko cites Kraska's research from 1997, which observed that close to "90 percent of cities with populations exceeding 50,000 and at least 100 sworn officers had at least one paramilitary unit, twice as many as in the mid 1980s." He correctly points out that "the trends giving rise to SWAT proliferation in the 1990s have not disappeared, so it's safe to assume that these numbers have continued to rise and are significantly higher today."

Then there are the effects of the war on terror, which sparked the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the introduction of  DHS grants  to local police departments. These grants are used to purchase policing equipment, although law enforcement is investing in more than just bullet-proof vests and walkie talkies. DHS grants have led to a booming law enforcement industry that specifically markets military-style weaponry to local police departments. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is  law enforcement's version of the military-industrial-complex .

 
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