For three weeks and counting, America has raged against the appalling behavior of the local police in Ferguson, Missouri, and for good reason: automatic rifles pointed at protesters, tank-like armored trucks blocking marches, the teargassing and arresting of reporters, tactics unfit even for war zones – it was all enough to make you wonder whether this was America at all. But as Congress returns to Washington this week, the ire of a nation should also be focused on the federal government agency that has enabled so much of the rise of military police, and so much more: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The 240,000-employee, Bush-invented bureaucratic behemoth that didn’t even exist 15 years ago has been the primary arms dealer for out-of-control local cops in Ferguson and beyond, handing out tens of billions of dollars in grants for military equipment in the last decade with little to no oversight and even less training on how use it. “From an oversight perspective, DHS grant programs are pretty much a mess,” a congressional aide told the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman the other day:
They don’t know what’s been bought with the money, how that equipment has been used, or whether it’s made anyone measurably any safer.
Buttressed by government policies that make it sometimes impossible for citizens to hold police accountable for civil rights violations, police can act like paramilitary forces to combat the most mundane crimes without much worry of the consequences. As Matt Apuzzo of the New York Timesreported in June:
Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclubin 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of ‘barbering without a license.’
There is now so much attention on the paramilitary pipeline that the White House has reportedly ordered a comprehensive review of the sprawling grant programs. But the problem with DHS is much larger than just combat gear: Homeland Security is also transferring tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in high-tech spying technology to local police through a sprawling backroom operation surveilling your neighborhood, much of which may be unconstitutional.
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