The deployment of military equipment by police forces against protesters first came to attention during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in 2014. The supply of military equipment to police is a trend that’s been developing for decades and the domestic homeland security market is now estimated to be worth more than $20 billion in goods and services.
“Certainly vendors, people, and companies that manufacture the technology that the police are purchasing are profiting from this,” said Thomas Nolan, a former senior policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security. “The police obviously are not in the business of profiting from private acquisitions.” LINK
Many of this military equipment is transferred through two federal programs: the 1033 program and the 1122 program. The 1122 program allows the police to purchase new military equipment using their own funding with the same discounts enjoyed by the federal government. The 1033 program allows the Department of Defence to transfer excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies free of charge, as long as they pay for shipping and maintenance.
More than 11,500 domestic law enforcement agencies have taken part in the 1033 program, receiving more than $7.4 billion in military equipment. After the Ferguson protests, several attempts were made to review and modify the 1033 program but they either met with opposition or the efforts dwindled as time passed without making substantive progress.
“One of the really troubling developments about the involvement of the federal government in the direct subsidy of purchases of militarized equipment is that this is really about creating a new market for defense contractors rather than really putting questions of public safety first,” said Alex Vitale, the Policing and Social Justice Project Coordinator at Brooklyn College.
According to critics, what makes both 1033 and 1122 programs so potentially counter-productive if not dangerous is the lack of clear oversight and accountability. The 1122 program, for instance, is not a grant or transfer program and thus is not required to be monitored by the federal government. Meanwhile, the 1033 program has put lethal weapons in the hands of officers in situations where there was no justifiable need for such equipment.
“We’ve seen instances reported of some small towns, even some college and university police departments that were acquiring military-grade weapons without any demonstrable need for the use of these or the acquisition of these weapons,” according to Nolan.
In some cases, equipment transferred through these programs has simply vanished due to what appears to be a lack of oversight and poor bookkeeping.
“There have been a number of situations where there have been audits of local police departments to try to figure out what they’ve done with this equipment,” said Vitale, “And these departments have been unable to provide adequate records.”
The National Police Foundation countered that its independent study revealed that a vast majority of equipment transferred through the 1033 program consists of nonlethal items such as “clothing, personal protective equipment” and “basic infrastructure needs.”
The National Police Foundation told CNBC that it encourages those considering policy changes to the 1033 program to examine the data and understand the value that states and local communities receive through these programs.
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