Keene, New Hampshire, population 23,000, is home to an annual pumpkin festival, a summer baseball team called the Swamp Bats -- and something called a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. Cullman, Alabama, population 14,000, has a military vehicle built to withstand a blast from a land mine. The sheriff of Montgomery County, Texas, controls a $300,000 surveillance drone.
A new video from the progressive media company Brave New Films highlights these towns, and questions whether places like them across the United States really need military gear for police officers.
The film asks how local police departments became “hostile military forces” in the first place. The answer, it says, is that the federal government made them that way. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Department of Homeland Security has spent $35 million since 2002 in grants to police, and the Pentagon gave out half a billion dollars worth of military equipment to local police departments in 2011 alone.
Some police chiefs and sheriffs have said they need the gear to fight terrorism and drug trafficking. But as the recent clashes in Ferguson, Missouri, showed, it’s not always drug dealers or terrorists the cops see when they look down the barrels of their assault rifles.
The aggressive response to the demonstrations in Ferguson sparked a public outcry. And in recent weeks, a number of elected leaders have called for the government to take a closer look at the Pentagon program that sends surplus military gear to local police forces. The White House said it would examine the program, and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noting that the adoption “by local police departments of military-style tactics and the use of military equipment have provoked concern across the nation for a number of years.”
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is set to chair a congressional hearing on “police militarization” on Tuesday.
Efforts to curb the programs could spark opposition from police departments and lobbyists. “You never know when domestic terrorism or a mass shooting event will hit Smalltown, USA,” Mark Lomax, executive director of the SWAT lobbying group National Tactical Officers Association, told Politico recently.
According to the video from Brave New Films, such allusions to the so-called wars on terror and drugs help explain why the protests in Ferguson turned violent. “When you keep declaring wars at home,” intones the narrator, “it’s no wonder that the police become warriors.”