Police Militarization: How It's Happening, and Who Could Be Profiting

SWAT team -- Oregon Department of Transportation, Wikimedia.

The recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri has pushed police militarization into the national conversation. While Americans remain split on the issue, the line between law enforcement and unofficial martial law continues to blur. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union shed light on research that shows the frequency of SWAT raids has risen 15-fold since the 1980s. An estimated 80% of small towns now have SWAT teams, compared with 20% three decades ago.

This issue raises two obvious questions:

  1. How do police departments obtain military-grade equipment?
  2. Who profits as a result?

Hand-me-down militarization
Hand-me-downs from the U.S. government are the primary driver of police militarization. As the ACLU explains, three federal programs are responsible for the brunt of it: the Department of Defense's 1033-program, Department of Homeland Security grants, and Justice Assistance grants from the Department of Justice.

The DoD's initiative was created in the 1990s to give excess military equipment to state and local police, either for free or close to it. Its original purpose was to be used to combat the narcotics trade and domestic terrorism, but smaller agencies, far removed from either issue, have stocked up in recent years.

More than 2,000 police departments requested equipment through the 1033-program last year, up from 574 requests in 2009, USA Today estimates. Official statistics report the DoD has moved $4.3 billion in military goods during the program's life -- up from $1 million in 1990 to more than $400 million last year.

DHS and JAG grants, meanwhile, can be allocated to items like armored transports, weapons, and officer wages. The former sent $35 billion to police departments between 2002 and 2011, The Economist says.

Who could profit from police militarization?
Police militarization appears to be a boon to some defense contractors. While the government doesn't release transactional data, it's possible to connect the dots enough to determine the companies likely involved.

According to an application that asks law enforcement officials to fill out their equipment preferences, several types of aircraft are available. The helicopters listed are Textron's Bell OH-58, several Huey variants, and the Hughes OH-6. The fixed-wing models mentioned are the Beechcraft C-12, Cessna 172, and Cessna 182, all from Textron. Peers Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon are not specifically listed, but each has taken in more than $5 billion from the DoD this year, AeroWeb reports.

The 1033-program also offers police departments a ground vehicle selection that includes AM General's Humvee and the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. The famed MRAP, as it's called, can cost as much as $600,000, and has been manufactured by Oshkosh, Navistar, General Dynamics, and BAE Systems in the past. A third vehicle, used by SWAT teams in particular, is the Lenco Industries BearCat, which can cost up to $300,000 apiece.

The DoD also discloses the M-16A2, M-14, and M-1911 pistol are available to police, though the breadth of gun makers involved with U.S. military operations makes it difficult to narrow this area down any further. It is clear, however, that BlackHawk's ThunderSledge is one battering-ram model used by militarized police, along with KDH Defense Systems' body armor, The Daily Beast reports.
 
What's next?
A third of all 1033-program equipment is new, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. So while an exact profit breakdown is not available, it's clear some contractors are coming out ahead from police militarization. As the ACLU remarks, "it appears [the federal government] can simply purchase property from an equipment or weapons manufacturer and transfer it to a local law enforcement." 
 
That alone should cause taxpayers to question the entire program. The situation in Ferguson only adds more uncertainty to the mix. Led by Congressman Hank Johnson and Senator Rand Paul, sentiment in Washington is swiftly moving in favor of demilitarization of police. Johnson will reportedly present the "Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act" to Congress in a few weeks.
 
Even if the stream of military-grade gear continues in the future, there are a few ways to control the flow. A stricter application process, for one, could limit equipment to the neediest, largest areas. There's no reason a police station in Justice, Illinois, a town of less than 13,000 people, needs a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, but it has one. It's also reasonable to instill a cap on each department -- one in Arizona has more than a dozen helicopters and armored transports.

If public sentiment continues to sour, defense contractors could also simply request that their equipment not be given to law enforcement. There are better ways for a company to promote its product than to have it plastered all over one of the most controversial social issues of the still-young 21st century.

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