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Ferguson woke up the country to police militarization—now’s the time to act

An important story in the New York Times highlights calls to demilitarize the police in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri. As this website and the national ACLU have documented for years, federal grant programs and gifts from the US military have been arming local cops like small militaries for decades. The war on terrorism is the new alibi, along with the immoral war on drugs, but cops can use the tools for just about whatever they want. The whole nation saw what that looks like when cops went wild in Ferguson. The Times has details on how they got that military gear:

Department of Homeland Security grant money paid for the $360,000 Bearcat armored truck on patrol in Ferguson, said Nick Gragnani, executive director of St. Louis Area Regional Response System, which administers such grants for the St. Louis area.

Since 2003, the group has spent $9.4 million on equipment for the police in St. Louis County. That includes $3.6 million for two helicopters, plus the Bearcat, other vehicles and night vision equipment. Most of the body armor worn by officers responding to the Ferguson protests was paid for with federal money, Mr. Gragnani said.

The focus is terrorism, but it’s allowed to do a crossover for other types of responses,” he said. “It’s for any type of civil unrest. We went by the grant guidance. There was no restriction put on that by the federal government.”

While the major Homeland Security grants do not pay for weapons, Justice Department grants do. That includes rubber bullets and tear gas, which the police use to disperse crowds. A Justice Department report last year said nearly 400 local police departments and more than 100 state agencies had bought such less-lethal weapons using Justice Department grant money.

The grants also paid for body armor, vehicles and surveillance equipment. It was not immediately clear if those grants had paid for equipment being used in Ferguson.

Ferguson isn't alone. Every major metropolitan area in the United States—and even lots of small towns—have received federal grants for military equipment and surveillance gear. Billions of dollars in monies that could have been directed to health, education, and public infrastructure have been funneled into the military industrial complex, arming our local police to the teeth. Unfortunately, it took a tragedy like the killing of Mike Brown and the Ferguson police's outrageous, over the top response to resulting protest for many people in the country to notice. But it's not too late to reverse the trend. And now that the issue is on the national radar, we must.

There's no reason we can't force police to get rid of these tools. And we sure as hell should stop them from obtaining more. Representative Hank Johnson tweeted that he'll introduce a bill that would go a long way towards slowing down police militarization. That's a good first step.

But we at the local level have a role to play, too. If you're concerned about the federalization and militarization of your local police department, take action. You can and should get involved at the local level to bring some transparency and accountability to police practices. If you're inspired by the people of Ferguson, take matters into your own hands. Organize in your community to reverse the militarization of your local cops. Demand that the local government require police to obtain public approval before applying for and obtaining federal grants for weapons, equipment, and surveillance gear. Hold public meetings to identify what kind of gear they've already gotten.

Now's the time.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.