As many have noted, Ferguson, Missouri, currently looks like a war zone. And its police—kitted out with Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles—are indistinguishable from soldiers.
America has been quietly arming its police for battle since the early 1990s.
Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.
The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors, which it has—to the tune of around $4.3 billion in equipment, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The St. Louis County Police Department’s annual budget is around $160 million. By providing law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment free of charge, the NDAA encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics.