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Pepper-Spraying Protesters Is Just the Beginning: Here Are More Hypermilitarized Weapons Your Local Police Force Could Employ

By arming local police departments with military grade equipment, domestic policing has come to resemble a combat operation with citizens as the enemy.

On Friday, November 18, a group of UC Davis students staged a sit-in to protect their Occupy encampment from destruction by a horde of riot police. Seated on the ground, the students defensively ducked as Lt. John Pike approached them. They were right to do so: Pike aimed a riot-extinguisher at them, showering the crowd of unarmed students with pepper spray as calmly as if he were watering his garden. A group of officers then proceeded to break up the crowd with batons and arrest them. The  video of the incident has since gone viral.

The counterinsurgency-like tactics used to subdue unarmed, peaceful demonstrators at Occupy encampments around the country have left people shocked and appalled at the grotesque treatment of protesters as if they were violent enemy combatants. This dynamic was captured best by a photo published in the  News Observer showing machine-gun toting police officers dressed in combat attire, pointing their weapons at unarmed Occupy Chapel Hill demonstrators.

The barrier between military and civilian law enforcement was drawn long ago for good reason. Traditionally, the role of the civilian police force is to maintain the peace and safety of the community while upholding the Constitution. In stark contrast, the military soldier is an agent of war, trained to kill the enemy. But that barrier has been broken down by decades of the relentless war on drugs, and more recently the war on terror. Today civilian law enforcement agencies have access to military-grade equipment designed for heavy combat, essentially blurring the line between soldier and police officer.

When local police departments are armed with military grade equipment, the soldier's mentality is not far behind. Domestic policing has come to resemble a string of combat operations in a scene that repeats itself every time an Occupy encampment is raided, which raises the question: exactly what type of policing equipment is in the arsenal of law enforcement agencies in America?

The average patrol officer's belt holds a handgun, pepper spray canister, Taser, handcuffs and baton or nightstick. Multiply that by several hundred, which is the minimum number of police officers deployed to raid a large Occupy encampment, and the amount of firepower is startling. But it doesn’t stop there. Police departments are equipped with much more than is found on the standard on-duty police belt.

Prior to the war on terror, local police departments were on a clear path toward acquiring military weaponry, thanks to several congressional and presidential moves throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which were rooted in the war on drugs. Although the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the government from using the military for domestic law enforcement, the tough stance of the drug war led to the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act of 1981. The act directed the military to give local, state and federal law enforcement access to military equipment, research and training for use in the drug war, basically authorizing cooperation between civilian police and the military. 

The 1980s saw a  series of additional congressional and presidential maneuvers that blurred the line between soldier and police officer, leading to 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.

As a result of equipment sharing, from  1995 to 1997the Department of Defense handed over 1.2 million military items to law enforcement around the country. Among the giveaways were 3,800 M-16s, 185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers.

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