Small Town Police Are Getting Leftover War Vehicles and Machine Guns

As America's wars wind down, the troops are coming home and so are the M-16 rifles. Armored cars, land mine detectors, silencers, aircraft, and other leftover military equipment are flowing to police departments big and small. Free stuff is tough to turn down, but does a small Wisconsin city that hasn't seen a homicide in 5 years really need a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP)?

Pentagon data, reports the New York Times reveals the scale of military equipment turnover. Under the Obama administration, 432 MRAPs, 533 planes and helicopters, nearly 100,000 machine guns, and nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines have gone to police departments.

That flow of military equipment to local police departments might have made more sense when the program was created in the 1990s. Violent crime, particularly in cities, peaked in that decade, sparking fears about our degenerating urban areas. But then, for reasons sociologists will debate over and over, violent crime has fallen drastically to the lowest rates we've seen in decades. And now, we find also ourselves with a surplus of war equipment.

The militarization of police departments is also changing the role of local police, whom those of us who grew up in small towns might associate more with traffic tickets and DARE programs. The number of SWAT teams in the U.S. has skyrocketed since the 80s, notes the Times, reflecting a trend toward more impersonal police forces. As Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer said to the Indianapolis Star when asked about the benefits of his department's MRAP, "It's a lot more intimidating than a Dodge." [New York Times, Indianapolis Star]

Top image: Troops in front of an MRAP in Kuwait—imagine this driving down Main Street. AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo