With $5.1B in New Toys, SWAT Deployments Rise 1,400% in 20 Years

Ferguson, MO (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)It almost makes sense on the surface: Police departments across the country receive the military's excess equipment, everything from fax machines and office chairs to digital cameras and riot shields to weapons and "various types of land vehicles." While in effect since 1990, things really skyrocketed after 9/11 and then the de-escalation of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Designated by Congress as the "1033 Program," the transfer of property from the Department of Defense to local police forces comes with few stipulations and little exchange of cash. In light of the Ferguson Police Department's response to protestors in the St. Louis suburb, however, the surface sense of the program is revealing its darker, more complicated depths.

According to "The 'Militarization of Law Enforcement and the Department of Defense's '1033 Program,'" an analysis from the Congressional Research Service (PDF), the unintended consequences are showing up in the numbers. Both in what police departments have and what they have not:

The number of SWAT teams has proliferated since they were first formed in the late 1960s. By the late 1990s, about 89% of police departments in the United States serving jurisdictions of 50,000 or more people and 80% of departments serving jurisdictions of 25-50,000 people reported having a SWAT team. The growth in the number of SWAT teams in small jurisdictions has raised questions about whether they have then resources necessary to properly train team members.

Between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, police departments have been entrusted with a higher caliber ability to fight these threats, no matter how imagined. The ACLU argues that the uptick in SWAT deployment, paired with the lack of proper training for new lethal gadgets, actually increases the chance of violence in these chaotic situations. Perhaps just as damning, the ACLU asserts that these tactics can undermine the public's faith in law enforcement — something that certainly proved true in the week's of unrest following the death of Michael Brown at a local officer's hands.

Whether or not you agree with the necessity of small towns to own and operate tank-like MRAP vehicles, most of the data on the militarization of police forces is available, as well as details of the efforts to train officers in these dystopian weapons. With the transfer of $5.1 billion in equipment, according to the above CRS analysis, and a 1,400% jump in deployment of SWAT teams, the information is out there. Some of it is happily spread across the front page of local newspapers, while others may require a strong-arming FOIA request, but the data is there for the public to peruse, analyze and use to make decisions about the power of those sworn to serve and protect.

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