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Possessing Military-Grade Weaponry Isn’t the Only Reason Police Wage War

“Waste not, want not,” as the saying goes. The opposite sentiment — “Want not? Waste!” — has never really caught on. Which, in the case of US military equipment, adds up to a nationwide disaster in domestic policing.

The images this week coming out of Ferguson, Missouri showing a poor American suburb under siege have highlighted the militarized state of municipal policing. Between Sunday night and Thursday, Ferguson saw thick clouds of tear gas, L-RAD sound canons, camouflage fatigues, and M4 rifles. Surely, commentators noted, we reserve this war machinery for foreign soil?

SWAT-teams in Ferguson brought the fact of militarized domestic policing to the fore, but it’s nothing new. Investigative reporter Radley Balko could have predicted the scenes of Army-style law enforcement in suburban Missouri. His book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, traces the trend back several decades, pinpointing the emergence of the SWAT unit in response to dissent in the 1960s.

The movement of military technologies and equipment to the domestic law enforcement sphere — from guns to armor to drones — is now so common it is basically a rite of passage. A number of reports this week prompted by shock at the militaristic policing of suburban unrest highlighted the specific Pentagon program responsible for funneling military gear into municipal police departments. The Defense Department’s Excess Property Program — also known as the 1033 program — provides refurbished military equipment to domestic law enforcement.

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