You've probably seen photos and video of overarmed police officers facing off against unarmed protestors in Ferguson, Missouri . The view of soldier-cops with assault rifles riding on top of mineproof tanks is certainly excessive, but also surprisingly common. How did we get here?
The revelation that police officers look more and more like soldiers in America is not a new one, but the events in Ferguson serve as a visceral reminder of how some potentially misguided policies have given our local law enforcement agencies weaponry that would be more at home in a foxhole than a cul-de-sac.
The militarization of Ferguson—and countless municipalities like it—is the result of process that kicked off in the 1990s, when crime rates spiked and Congress made it easy for the Department of Defense to transfer excess equipment to local police forces. The part of the National Defense Authorization Act this new policy affected is now known as Section 1033.
The initial intent of Section 1033 was to help police go to war against violent drug gangs and terrorists. But a glut of Bearcats and battering rams and anything else you'd find in an armory after Iraq and Afghanistan than they knew what to do with. So the program expanded to include local police forces that didn't have any demonstrable use for the equipment, but who also weren't going to say no to a very expensive handout from Uncle Sam—free of charge.
As far as what exactly Ferguson has at its disposal, it's hard to say. In an investigation of recent city budgets, it's easy to find appropriations for new laptops in squad cars and high tech parking ticket printers. Details about how the local police got their hands on the Bearcat armored vehicles and the LRAD sound canon you're hearing in apocalyptic YouTube videos, however, are scarce.