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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Protests Highlight The Defense Department's Militarization Of Police Departments

A military humvee obtained by the police department in Estes Park, Colorado, through the Defense Logistics Agency's Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO.
A military humvee obtained by the police department in Estes Park, Colorado, through the Defense Logistics Agency's Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO.

The ongoing protests over police brutality is highlighting another ongoing issue: the militarization of police departments.

Abby Hall Blanco is a co-author of the book “ Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism.” She said the push to bring military tactics into domestic police forces began in the early 1900s, when U.S. soldiers joined police departments here after the conflict and annexation of the Philippines.

Then, in the 1960s, she said the movement gained steam following the Watts riots in Los Angeles. That event led to the creation of SWAT units, which she said are “explicitly designed to be like military units.”

Hall Blanco said SWAT teams exploded thanks to the war on drugs during the 1980s.

“So whereas prior conflicts had a very clearly defined, pretty much exclusive external enemy, the war on drugs was very different, in that there is this undefined faceless, domestic component to it,” she said. “You have domestic drug users, dealers, manufacturers and so on who are now seen as an enemy of the government.”

In the 1990s, a new 1033 Program was passed that allowed police departments to acquire surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense – at little to no cost.

“There is a provision that police departments are required to use the equipment that they are sent, or they are supposed to return it to the DOD,” she said.

Hall Blanco believes that creates an incentive problem, as police departments are forced to use equipment that is designed for wartime combat.

According to the latest federal numbers, more than $95 million worth of military equipment is under local control across the Mountain West. More than $26 million of that is in Colorado.

Utah House Rep. Joel Briscoe, a Democrat who represents parts of Salt Lake City, is among the lawmakers questioning why police departments need such equipment.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the .

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