Following the controversial policing tactics employed in Ferguson, Mo., and heightened concern over the militarization of American police departments, the Department of Defense has released data detailing equipment it gives police departments throughout the United States.
Police departments across the State of Maine have taken advantage of this program, receiving approximately $12 million in military equipment, according to The New York Times, which placed the DoD data in an interactive database.
Maine police departments have obtained 463 assault rifles, 37 pistols, 32 shotguns, 8 armored vehicles, and 2 planes. In addition, police departments have received items such as first aid materials, document shredders, and body armor.
The equipment, which varies from assault rifles to mine-resistant armored vehicles, is provided free of charge through the Pentagon Excess Property Program which doles out surplus military equipment to state and local police departments. The only cost to participating police departments is shipping and handling.
Police Departments in Aroostook County seem to have benefited most from the program, having received the equivalent of over $4.8 million in surplus military equipment in the period from 2006 to 2014. The most expensive items purchased through the program are mine-resistant armored vehicles obtained by Cumberland and York Counties, valued at $658,000 each.
The original purpose of the program was to combat terrorist and narcotics related actions in the United States, and police departments have often claimed potential terrorist activity as the reason they are requesting military equipment.
However, in many cases police departments have used their newly obtained military equipment to supplement regular police activities, leaving citizens to question the goals of the program.
In Ferguson, community members are concerned about how the local police department has equipped itself with military grade equipment in response to largely peaceful protests. According to Radley Balko, a journalist for The Washington Post, this is part of an ongoing mission creep inherent in police departments seeking to cash in on anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism funding and grants.
“The 1990s trend of government officials using paramilitary tactics and heavy-handed force to make political statements or to make an example of certain classes of nonviolent offenders would continue, especially in response to political protests,” said Balko in his book, Rise of The Warrior Cop. “The battle gear and aggressive policing would also start to move into more mundane crimes.”
Dr. Donald J. Campbell, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said the militarization of the police is a little bit overblown, but that providing military equipment to local law enforcement agencies could nonetheless change police culture in a potentially worrisome way.
“I don’t think our typical police department is becoming a military unit,” said Campbell.
Part of the push for militarization, said Campbell, comes from financial motivations. In an attempt to avoid waste in Defense Department budgets, Congress puts pressure on defense contractors to provide dual-use functionality for military equipment which would allow civilians to use equipment discarded by the Defense Department.
“If you look at the manufacturers, if you look at the pressure Congress has put on defense contractors, there is an emphasis on dual-use functions,” he said. This push for dual functionality is translated into a push for manufacturers to produce equipment that police departments can adopt.
The data provided by Times only covers one such program. What it does not include are the many grants the Department of Homeland Security provides to local and state police departments to purchase military style equipment independently.
Despite national outrage over the situation in Ferguson and the backlash against the Department of Homeland Security, there does not appear to be any end in sight for the program. In June, the House of Representatives voted against an amendment by U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) to limit the Pentagon Excess Property Program by an overwhelming majority. Both of Maine’s Democratic Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree voted against Grayson’s amendment.
It is unclear as to when, how often, and to what purpose Maine police departments have used equipment obtained under the DHS program.
Maine Wire Reporter