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How the Feds Fueled the Militarization of Police

Billions in post-9/11 taxpayer dollars have paid for combat-style gear on display in the Occupy crackdowns.
 
 
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 The militarization of America’s metropolitan police forces was on full display in recent months as police from Los Angeles to New York cracked down on Occupy protests, decked out in full SWAT gear and occasionally using strange  pieces of military hardware.

Less well known is that police forces in small towns and far-flung cities have also been stocking up on heavy equipment in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.

In spite of strained city and state budgets in local years, the trend has continued thanks to generous federal grants. According to a new  story by the Center for Investigative Reporting, $34 billion in federal grant money has financed the past decade’s shopping spree.

To learn more about the trend, I spoke with G.W. Schultz, who co-authored the story with Andrew Becker. (Also worth a look is the  slide showaccompanying the story.)

You start your piece with Fargo, N.D., where the police have a “$256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret,” kevlar helmets and assault rifles in their squad cars. What did they say when you asked why they need this kind of heavy equipment?

Their view is that they need to be as prepared as a city like New York. We’ve been studying the grant programs for a while. You see this in city after city. Everyone has got an explanation for why they need more and not less grant money. I grew up in Tulsa; there’s still a lot of sensitivity around the Oklahoma City bombing. So the attitude is, “Look, we could have a similar attack and we need to be ready for it.” Now I live in Austin. The attitude here is, we could have an incident like the one in which a guy smashed his plane into the IRS building a few years ago, or the one in which a guy started shooting people from a tower at the Uniersity of Texas a few decades ago. Every city has an answer like that. The approach to security spending is based on speculation about what could happen, however remote. That attitude enables you to buy everything without limit because you can never attain 100 percent security.

What is the federal grant program that is handing out all this money?

What we learned over time is that it’s not just one grant program, it’s grant programs. There is a dizzying array of grants that local communities are eligible for from the Department of Homeland Security and sometimes the Justice Department. A few grants existed prior to 9/11. After DHS was created, Congress kept creating new programs to meet perceived needs around security. For example, “We need a bulletproof vehicle to send in our SWAT unit if a Mumbai-style attack occurs.” That led to a spree of spending on bulletproof vehicles. Each round of purchases is fueled by a what-if scenario.

You write in your piece that there’s a lot of information still lacking about this spending. What  don’t we know? 

We’ve been working on this Homeland Security research for a few years. The feds have never had a listing of everything the local police and other local government agencies bought with the grant money. You literally can’t go to Washington and find a listing of how the $34 billion was spent; you have to go state by state. We set out to do that; after a period of many months, we still only have records from 41 states, and they are wildly inconsistent. We wanted to build a nationwide database of how the money was spent, but there turned out to be just no way to do it because of the lack of information. But we spent so much time with grant records, we were able to identify trends; we knew many communities were buying SWAT-style trucks, combat-style protective gear, and so on.