In 2014, many Americans were startled by images of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri responding to street protests with tanks, assault rifles, and other military equipment. Media coverage of the protests in Ferguson drew attention to the militarization of local police departments, a trend that has been accelerated by two federal initiatives. In 1990, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment at no cost to police departments and other local government agencies. Known as the 1033 Program, this initiative has provided over $5 billion worth of military equipment to local police, including both non-lethal equipment and combat weapons, tactical gear used by SWAT teams, and the armored vehicles that have grabbed headlines.
During the Clinton years, the Justice Department also began to provide federal grants to local police departments to purchase military equipment. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security expanded this program significantly; in the decade after 9/11, local police departments have received over $34 billion in federal funding for military equipment and training. Students who have been confronted at protests with armored vehicles, or witnessed SWAT teams serve warrants to suspected criminals in their neighborhood, will be familiar with the impact of police militarization on local communities.
In this lesson, students will hone research skills by learning to ask high-quality questions on this timely issue. Students will be asked to imagine they are members of their local city council voting on whether to accept a grant to purchase an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle and other military gear. Their staff research issues to help them reach a decision—as council members, the students’ job is to figure out what questions they need to ask.