Why America’s police look like soldiers

Across the country, Americans protesting racial injustice and police brutality — the overwhelming majority of them peacefully — have been met by police forces that look more like an army.

Officers have shown up to protests with riot gear, armored trucks, and military rifles. And this isn’t new: The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 saw a similarly militarized response from police.

So where did police get all these weapons?

Over several decades, as part of the war on drugs, the US implemented policies intended to bring law enforcement and the military closer together. The most impactful of those, which began in 1990, is what’s now known as the 1033 Program — it allowed the military to loan its surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies. By the mid-1990s, local police departments across the US, including even university police, had acquired gear like armored trucks, automatic rifles, and grenade launchers.

Today that equipment is standard in American police departments. But what’s changed since the ’90s is that the 1033 Program no longer drives the militarization of police. Today the culture of militarization is baked into how the country’s police see themselves.

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