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Police clamor for military gear, but use deception to justify the requests

Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo. The incidents in Ferguson brought to light the extreme militarization of the nation's police forces last year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo. The incidents in Ferguson brought to light the extreme militarization of the nation’s police forces last year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) 

The war on drugs has lent a cover for the militarization of the police when local departments are in need of equipment.

Mother Jones obtained more than 450 police department requests for military equipment, finding the public and private justifications diverge.

Local requests for a mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles from the military were based on their usefulness in the war on drugs. When asked about the equipment by the public, however, police spokesmen used examples of hostage situations, shootouts, and similar events to justify the requests.

According to a 2014 NPR investigation, the Pentagon has distributed leftover military equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through its 1033 program to local, state, and federal agencies. More than 600 MRAPs have been distributed, along with about 80,000 assault rifles, 200 grenade launchers, and 400 helicopters, among other gear.

In total, almost $6 billion of military equipment has reached local law enforcement agencies around the country.

Questions arise about whether local police departments need such equipment to protect public safety, as well as the psychological effect.

Police showing up in riot gear or with military equipment send an intimidating message to the public. “To protect and serve” transforms into “to order and be obeyed.”

When departments have the equipment available, the temptation to use it grows, and that can make situations more dangerous than they otherwise would be.

Take Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and their use for police raids, for instance. A 2014 ACLU report details the deployment of teams for drug raids, a shift from their original purpose of hostage situations and active shooting incidents. As SWAT teams have seen mission creep, so could the uses of military equipment.

Police justify the requests based on hypothetical future events, Mother Jones reported.

Crowd control, terrorism, and undefined occurrences where the police are limited in protecting the public. The risk of such events for small law enforcement offices, however, is vanishingly small.

Intelligent policing doesn’t prepare for every possibility. It works within a budget to account for actual dangers a neighborhood, city, or county faces.

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