Nestled in the tranquil Connecticut River watershed of southwest New Hampshire, the city of Keene has largely avoided the violent unrest common to many other urban areas. With a population of only 23,409 people, Keene’s violent crime index is about half the national average.
Despite the calm, however, local authorities didn’t think twice about requesting a BearCat armored counterattack vehicle from the Department of Homeland Security.
“Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money,” said a Keene City Council member. “What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this?”
While the possession of an armored vehicle by such a peaceful city may seem strange, the militarization of the Keene police force isn’t an isolated case. Over the past decade, thousands of local police departments nationwide have been amassing stockpiles of military-grade equipment in the name of homeland security. Local police now have the sort of equipment soldiers use to fight wars.
The United States Department of Defense has given out 165 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles under its national military surplus program. Police have requested an additional 731 mraps. Authorities in Fargo and its surrounding county have spent about $8 million to equip local police departments with military-style hardware, according to Andrew Becker and G. W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Every squad car in the city now carries a military-style machine gun. Officers have Kevlar helmets able to withstand battlefield-grade ammunition. In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff’s department now owns a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone, like the ones used to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East. In Des Moines, Iowa, police bought two $180,000 bomb-disarming robots. In Arizona, at least one sheriff is now the proud owner of a surplus Army tank.
An Associated Press investigation of the Defense Department’s military surplus program has found that over $4 billion worth of equipment has been distributed to local police forces since 1990—everything from bayonets to Humvees.
This military surplus program is two decades old, but the Obama administration has expanded it drastically. In fiscal year 2011, the Pentagon gave away a record $500 million in military gear, which, according to the program’s director, surpassed “the previous mark by several hundred million dollars.”
Even more shocking than the $4 billion in military hardware given to local police by the Pentagon is the $34 billion in anti-terror grants given to local police by the Department of Homeland Security. This grant money, awarded with little oversight from Congress, has put advanced equipment in the hands of civilian officers and allowed local police departments to transform into small militarized forces.
Why all this firepower? What sorts of events are your local police preparing for? Many people are concerned about the potential for social breakdown in the event of economic collapse, terrorist attacks and other apocalyptic catastrophes. Will the militarization of local police forces make us safer? Is this arms buildup even legal? Even if a paramilitary police force can protect us from out-of-control criminals, is there another danger to the American people: out-of-control government?