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Arizona ACLU: Military equipment for police ‘far outpaces the threat’

LISTEN: ACLU Arizona Executive Director Alessandra Soler

In Ferguson, Mo., police have sought to quell the protests and looting which have come in the aftermath of the death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown with assault rifles, riot gear, tear gas and other military equipment.

People around the country and the world have taken notice of the police reaction, raising their eyebrows at photos and footage of police-citizen clashes involving rubber bullets, short-barreled assault rifles and flash bangs.

And while the images look like something often associated with a foreign country — a war-torn area in the Eastern Bloc or, recently, the Gaza Strip — one local expert warns that such a scene could very well occur in Arizona or, for that matter, anywhere in the U.S., thanks to government programs which seek to place such equipment in the hands of local police departments.

On Friday, ACLU Arizona Executive Director Alessandra Soler informed Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes of why and how, exactly, this is all happening.

“The Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense all have been, for decades, providing these military-style equipment to these local police departments,” she explained.

Soler then mentioned the 1033 Program, once known as the 1208 Program from 1990-96.

Originally sought as a mutual solution for an oversupplied military and a heating War on Drugs, the government began to transfer the property of the Department of Defense to other federal and state agencies in 1990 through the National Defense Autorization Act.

“Tanks, sharp-shooting — it’s military grade equipment that they’re using in communities,” Soler said.

In 2014, the effects of the program can be seen in Ferguson, where Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) roamed the roads earlier this week or in Bloomington, Ga. (population 2,713) where the local police department acquired four grenade launchers.

“It transfers sort of military surplus and it gives it to these departments with absolutely no training,” she went on.

“Not only no training,” she said, “there are no restrictions.”

Simply because it’s available, Soler suggested, police have begun to use the equipment in standard, daily operations.

“Our research looked at it — there’s something like 50,000 paramilitary raids every year,” she said.

And the 1033 provisions spiked after 9/11, as Washington aimed to equip local communities with the ability to counteract mass violence.

“They were given equipment to fight terrorism but it’s now being used to fight against the local communities,” Soler explained. “The equipment far outpaces the threat and that’s what the situation is (in Ferguson).”

Throughout the interview, Soler decried the “militarization of police,” sharply criticizing it as excessive force, which happens to be the catalyst for the Ferguson pandemonium in the first place.

“They’ve been amassing it since 9/11 when we were spending all of these resources trying to defend the country,” she said. “And now, where is this supposed to go?”

Soler also advocated for documentation of police activity through personal video surveillance.