For almost two weeks, people in Ferguson, Mo., have been protesting the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. Even when the gatherings have been peaceful, the police presence has been enormous. The images have been striking: outfitted in camouflage and gas masks, heavily armed and standing in front of armored vehicles, these police officers don't look like your average suburban law enforcement. Where did police in a suburb of 21,000 people get the kind of equipment the military carries into foreign war zones?
The U.S. military, of course. Thanks to what's called the 1033 program, created in the 1990s to fight the drug war, the Pentagon transfers military-grade weaponry like assault rifles, mine-resistant armored vehicles, body armor, and grenade launchers to local police forces all over the country.
The New York Times received Pentagon data on all the military transfers of equipment since 2006, and mapped where this program is sending surplus military gear. Their interactive map shows the number of planes, helicopters, armored vehicles, body armor, grenade launchers, night vision accessories, and assault rifles transferred to local and state agencies in each county. This doesn't represent all the gear police departments have (they can also use their own budgets or federal grants to buy equipment), and the data doesn't specify what equipment is going to local versus state agencies, but it does provide a rough sketch of how police forces are militarizing. While a few places notably have not taken part in the program (really, the NYPD doesn't want an armored vehicle?), the majority of U.S. counties across the country are sitting on the military's surplus war gear.
Try comparing the New York Times' map to this one showing regions of America where no one lives. While big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago are some of the biggest recipients of surplus gear, including thousands of assault rifles, the geographical spread of military-grade weaponry doesn't exactly line up with population centers. Lincoln County, Mo. (population 53,000), just up the road from St. Louis County (population: 1 million), received 16 assault rifles to the latter's 12.
What the raw data doesn't provide is a clear explanation for why certain police forces are sitting on piles of military gear, while others received nothing more than a few night vision goggles. What is Humboldt County, Nev., smaller than 17,000 people, doing with a mine-resistant vehicle? Why does the beach town of Santa Barbara, Calif., have two grenade launchers?
Clicking on the icons of different types of gear allows you to see only the counties that have, say, armored vehicles. Assault weapons are by far the most prevalent of the military surplus goods in police hands, but filtering the results by some of the other types of gear allows you to see the unexpected places where hard-core weaponry is headed—like Marion County, Fla., a county half-covered by national forest, which now has seven grenade launchers. Yikes.
Explore the map for yourself over at the New York Times].