Federal Grants Brought the Equipment of the War on Terror Home to American Police Departments
In 2003, the nascent Department of Homeland Security began issuing millions of dollars to cities and regions for counterterrorism equipment and training. It was part of a broader plan to buttress the nation, still reeling from 9/11, against future attacks. But that the influx of that equipment—automated license plate readers, drones, facial recognition technology, tactical body armor and hulking armored vehicles, sound cannons originally developed for military use—fundamentally altered the landscape of American policing.
Technology and equipment migrated from the various fronts in the war on terror to small-town police departments back in the homeland. The grants were supposed to fund counterterrorism, but they became troughs of money for general crime fighting. And secrecy made it hard for the public and media to discover the scope, the privacy implications, and the effectiveness of the new police gear.
“This age of governmental secrecy comes hand in hand with the reduction in our privacy, and it’s kind of a lethal combination in terms of, frankly, a functioning democracy,” says Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The idea that we have any say in our law enforcement regimes, in our national security regimes, seems to have gone by the wayside in favor of massive secrecy.”
Today, police departments across the country are using more than $1 billion in surplus military equipment handed out since 9/11. A study released last year by Brown University’s Costs of War project found that the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which offers free surplus military equipment to police departments, has transferred at least $1.6 billion worth of equipment to departments across the country since 9/11, compared to just $27 million before the attacks.
That equipment includes mine-resistant, armored-protective vehicles, or MRAPs—armored personnel carriers designed to survive bomb blasts on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan. The study found 1,114 MRAPs currently in the possession of American police departments.
And the 1033 program is dwarfed by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants to cities and states. Bloomberg reported last year that states and metro areas have received $24.3 billion since 2003 from two DHS programs, the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative.
For example, the city council in Vallejo, California, recently agreed to expand its network of automated license plate readers after receiving $30,000 in Urban Areas Secur
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