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This is why your local police agency owns military-grade assault equipment

One of the striking scenes from this week has been the sight of police in Ferguson, Missouri using very sophisticated military gear to assist in crowd control. Images of heavily armored officers driving vehicles that seem better suited for a military operation in Iraq have sparked surprise from Americans who are unaware of the large amount of military surplus equipment that has flooded into local police departments in the past five years.

Police in Ferguson, Missouri respond to ongoing protests over a shooting
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Much of the gear - ranging from battlefield-grade rifles to armored personnel vehicles - has been passed along to local police departments across the country through the Department of Defense Excess Property Program. That program transfers excess military property to local law enforcement agencies, often at little or no cost.

In Minnesota, the program is administered by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) office. According to its web site, Minnesota's Law Enforcement Support Office (LISO) has provided more than $25 million worth of equipment since the program began in 1993. Minnesota law enforcement agencies (LEOs) receiving equipment have included the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Enforcement Division, along with 85 county sheriff's offices and approximately 325 local police agencies.

The video included in this story comes from LISO and it awkwardly describes the type of equipment available through the program. While some of the equipment is mundane, agencies can also apply for Humvees, personnel carriers shielded to resist bombs, various types of boats as well as drones and helicopters. Weapons such as M-14 and M-16 rifles are available at a discount.

It's not clear how much of this equipment has been ordered in the past few years. The video quotes an HSEM official as stating in June 2012 that $1,000,000 worth of equipment had been delivered in the previous six months, with another $500,000 having been ordered but not yet delivered.

Local law enforcement agencies are also able to buy equipment directly using grants provided through federal block grants. Not surprisingly, when a police department has the ability to acquire sophisticated high-tech equipment for little or no cost, they're going to take advantage of the opportunity. In 2011, the Center For Investigative Reporting estimated that more than $34 billion worth of federal block grants had been provided since 2001.

It's difficult to estimate exactly how much equipment has been provided to Minnesota LEOs through either program. I contacted more than a dozen agencies on Wednesday and none was willing to discuss program specifics. The tracking is especially challenging with the block grant program, which even the federal government admits has only loose record keeping.

But it doesn't take long to search local Minnesota media outlets before you find plenty of examples of law enforcement agencies touting their latest acquisition to the press. In November 2011, Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton proudly showed off a new 9-ton, $237,000 bullet-resistant Bearcat armored vehicle that was bought with a grant from the federal government. The Star-Tribune article noted that the agency was also receiving a $226,000 mobile command post and a $70,000 robot.

The BearCat is manufactured by Lenco Armored Vehicles, which suggests the vehicle "may be used as a S.W.A.T. or Military Counter Attack and Rescue Vehicle and is often used in hostile Urban Environments or as a Patrol/Reaction Vehicle on a Military Base."

There are at least seven BearCats in use in Minnesota, although it's unlikely any of the areas could be described as a potential "hostile urban environment." In July, 2013, the Minnesota Valley Regional Tactical Response Team acquired its Bearcat, Dakota County acquired one in 2008 and the Roseville Police Department got its Bearcat in 2012.

Law enforcement officials and the equipment manufacturers defend the increase of military-grade equipment at the local level, citing an increase in societal violence and the possibility of a terrorist attack. Defense manufacturer Oshkosh Defense sells a "tactical protector vehicle" to law enforcement agencies, which can be purchased with a federal block grant. On its web site, Oshkosh suggests the vehicle helps police address a more dangerous world:

"As criminal organizations are increasingly armed with military-style weapons, law enforcement operations require the same level of field-tested and combat-proven protection used by soldiers and Marines in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high-risk locations."

But critics of the militarization of local law enforcement cite is as a factor in building additional walls between police and the people they are hired to protect. They note that local agencies don't have the training to use sophisticated equipment properly. They also argue that the more military-style equipment an agency owns, the more likely it is to be used, often inappropriately.

Norm Stamper was the police chief of Seattle in 1999 and he supervised an infamous crackdown on protesters during a World Trade Organization meeting. He told The Nation that he now regrets the military-like response from his department:

"My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose. Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict. The “Battle in Seattle,” as the WTO protests and their aftermath came to be known, was a huge setback—for the protesters, my cops, the community."

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