This week, the American Civil Liberties Union began examining the militarization of America’s police forces by filing more than 255 public records requests in 23 states to “determine the extent to which federal funding and support has fueled the militarization of state and local police departments,” the ACLU website states. 

A 2011 Center for Investigative Reporting investigation revealed that since 9/11, $34 billion in grants from the Department of Homeland Security were allocated to states to procure military-grade weapons and other security defenses. 

While it is hard to determine the effectiveness of such purchases because the federal government doesn’t keep close track, CIR found that “records from 41 states obtained through open-government requests, and interviews with more than two dozen current and former police officials and terrorism experts, shows police departments around the U.S. have transformed into small army-like forces.”

Here are a few things to consider:

  • This comes at a time when crime rates have been dropping, while the number of police associated with SWAT teams is on the rise. (See the graphic on the above).
  • Police don’t see it as “militarization.” “I don’t see us as militarizing police,” former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton told CIR in 2011. “I see us as keeping abreast with society. And we are a gun-crazy society.”
  • Across the country, communities of all sizes have ramped up their forces. CIR found: “In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff’s department owns a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone. In Garland County, Ark., known for its pleasant hot springs, a local law enforcement agency acquired four handheld bulletproof protective shields costing $600 each. In East Baton Rouge, La., it was $400 ballistic helmets. In Augusta, Maine, with fewer than 20,000 people and where an officer hasn’t died from gunfire in the line of duty in more than 125 years, police bought eight $1,500 tactical vests. And for police in Des Moines, Iowa, it was two $180,000 bomb robots.”  
  • In California, agencies received $1.9 billion in major anti-terrorism grants from the federal government. Take a look at how they spent it:
  • According to the Homeland Security Department, its preparedness grants for fiscal year 2012 were reduced by nearly $1 billion from fiscal year 2011 and totaled $1.5 billion less than what President Barack Obama requested. 
  • Find out how much your state received from the Department of Homeland Security with CIR’s interactive database.

For more, read CIR’s full investigation, America’s War Within.

Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on cironline.org and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.