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Cops Are Using Over $1 Billion in Post-9/11 Military Gear

Texas highways are not and have never been strewn with homemade bombs. Yet Texas police have over 100 MRAPs, the armored vehicle with a blast-resistant hull that U.S. service members drove in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tennessee cops have 86 more. Ohio police have 43. 

It’s just one measure of how militarized American policing has become since 9/11. And it’s a component of a larger one. Police across the country still operate Pentagon-provided equipment, including lethal hardware, worth $1.6 billion, according to a new study from Brown University’s Cost of War Project. 

That number is an undercount—likely a substantial one—but it contains greater precision than the standard accounting for police acquisitions of surplus military equipment. The Rand Corporation recently tallied $775 million in such acquisitions between fiscal year 2015 and 2017 alone. 

But the Brown University researchers are tallying the most sensitive, “controlled” items provided by the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 Program, things like MRAPs and semi-automatic weapons, which remain in use since 9/11. Smaller-tier equipment, the “uncontrolled” stuff, falls off the Pentagon’s books after a year, so Brown can’t count it —except for the uncontrolled items that haven’t been in police storage lockers and motor pools that long. And even the controlled material, like in the Rand tally, eventually cycles out of use. (Also, the real acceleration in police spending comes not from Pentagon surplus but from Department of Homeland Security grants.) 

So while $1.6 billion accounts for only a fraction of the nation’s post-9/11 police militarization, it also represents the enduring aspect of that militarization—what remains in police inventories today. Consider it the runoff of endless war, or an index of how permanently the war on terror blurred the line between the police and the military. 

Jessica Katzenstein, the lead researcher on the study, said the full measure of the post-9/11 police militarization is also totaled “in the currencies of racialized violence, lost opportunities, and critical global analysis.”

Beyond MRAPs, Katzenstein’s research finds other significant equipment transfers. Since 2005, Katzenstein tallies $77 million in parts for robotic systems, including unarmed drones or bomb-squad robots, that went from military hangars to police departments. That includes over 1000 “individual robot items.” 

A far more sensitive finding of the Cost of War Project concerns military personnel themselves. About 19 to 28 percent of police are veterans or reservists, compared to 7 percent of the general population. Their legacy is “complex,” Katzenstein writes, as “veteran-officers are more likely than non-veterans to have fired their service weapons at least once in their careers, and that they receive more complaints from civilians.” She cites a recent study that found, after controlling for relevant variables, “veteran-officers were more likely than non-veterans to have shot a civilian while in police uniform.”

After widespread outrage over the heavily militarized 2014 police response to the Ferguson protests, the Obama administration curtailed the 1033 program, which began long before 9/11. In 2017, the Trump administration restored police access to the Pentagon hardware. 

“In reckoning with these costs, we must understand that militarization is not a dial that can be turned down by more tightly regulating equipment transfer programs, nor an issue that can be addressed in isolation – it is rooted in colonial and anti-Black violence and is in a sense as old as U.S. policing itself,” Katzenstein said. 

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