There is little logic in the continued build-up of military arsenals for small towns across the United States, yet it continues to happen. The police are appearing very like military personnel that, soon, regular Americans will no longer be able to tell the difference. The best part, at least as far as the police are concerned, is that there is little to no cost involved in gearing up.
Over the last five years, the top 10 beneficiaries of this “Department of Defense Excess Property Program” included small agencies such as the Fairmount Police Department. It serves 7,000 people in northern Georgia and received 17,145 items from the military. The cops in Issaquah, Washington, a town of 30,000 people, acquired more than 37,000 pieces of gear.
In 2011 alone, more than 700,000 items were transferred to police departments for a total value of $500 million. This year, as of May 15, police departments already acquired almost $400 million worth of stuff. Last year’s record would have certainly been shattered if the Arizona Republic hadn’t revealed in early May that a local police department used the program to stockpile equipment – and then sold the gear to others, something that is strictly forbidden. Three weeks after the revelation, the Pentagon decided to partly suspend distribution of surplus material until all agencies could put together an up-to-date inventory of all the stuff they got through the years. A second effort, which gives federal grants to police departments to purchase equipment, is still ongoing, however. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, since 9/11, the grants have totaled $34 billion.
Because the equipment is so readily available, police departments obtain it without proper training on how to use it.
Take the 50-officer police department in Oxford, Alabama, a town of 20,000 people. It has stockpiled around $3 million of equipment, ranging from M-16s and helmet-mounted infrared goggles to its own armored vehicle, a Puma. In Tupelo, Mississippi, home to 35,000, the local police acquired a helicopter for only $7,500 through the surplus program. The chopper, however, had to be upgraded for $100,000 and it now costs $20,000 a year in maintenance.
The Nebraska State Patrol has three amphibious eight-wheeled tanks. Acquired almost three years ago, their highest achievement has been helping with a flood last year and with a shooting a couple of weeks ago. Overall, it has been deployed five times. At least, officers love driving them. “They’re fun,” said trooper Art Frerichs to the Lincoln Journal Star in 2010. And the ride, according to Patrol Sgt. Loveless, “is very smooth.”
Nebraska does not need amphibious eight-wheeled tanks. It’s ridiculous that they could ever justify purchasing such equipment. That’s okay though, the police officers have fun driving them around.
In Lebanon, Tennessee, a town of less than 30,000 people, Mike Justice, the public safety coordinator, was so eager to accumulate military goods that he used to wake up at 3:00 a.m. so he was the first person logged in at the government’s first-come, first-serve online store. Thanks to his sleepless nights, since 2007, Lebanon has collected $4 million worth of stuff, including tanks, weapons and heavy equipment like bulldozers and truck loaders. Lebanon’s tank, an LAV 150, has been used only “five or six times,” according to Justice. Although it did help save a man who tried to commit suicide, spotting him with the tank’s infrared camera.
Why would a town in Tennessee ever need tanks? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just purchase an infrared camera instead of a tank, along with its costly maintenance?
The Cobb County Police Department, just outside Atlanta, has also received an amphibious armored tank, a light armored vehicle that should only be used in combat. It has no place on the streets of America.
The tank was not the only piece of equipment Cobb County received through the program. They also got an armored truck, the Peacekeeper, and a bunch of military AR-15 assault rifles. So many, in fact, that they can put one in every patrol vehicle. You might ask yourself how often they come in handy to fight crime. “I can’t remember when one has been discharged at a suspect,” said Pierce.
That’s because it’s overkill. Why does a rural town need assault rifles other than to brag about how much firepower they have?
Regardless of their apparent uselessness, Justice, from the Lebanon police, thinks the program is a great way to save taxpayers’ money. “We tell all of our taxpayers around here: ‘You paid for this equipment once, when the federal government bought it,’” Justice told Danger Room. “You pay for it once, you might as well use it.”
Herein lies the problem. Just because it was purchased by federal tax dollars does not mean that every tiny town in America should be running around with such equipment.
To ease potential popular concerns, the Lebanon police painted its tank black, to match its colors with the SWAT team. “We try not to keep these things military-colored,” said Justice.
Well, don’t we all feel better now? It’s not military colored. It’s black, a threatening color all on its own.
having small local police departments go around with tanks and military gear has “a chilling effect on any effort to strengthen the relationship” between the community and the cops. And that’s not the only danger. “There’s no justification for them having that kind of equipment, for one obvious reason, and that is if they have it, they will find a way to use it. And if they use it they will misuse it altogether too many times,”
This is the militarization of the police force. It should be a warning to most Americans that it needs to stop now. The police were once friendly and helpful. Today, they are pseudo-military thugs who enjoy asserting the power they were entrusted with. The police have already abused this equipment and will continue to do so unless American citizens rise up and put a stop to it. It is a deeply disturbing trend that needs to stop before it’s too late.