A man in full-body armor sits atop an armored vehicle, his sniper rifle pointed into a crowd of people.
Clouds of tear gas. Back-lit silhouettes of people hurling bottles and bricks.
Police raise their guns, forming a human barricade – their faces obscured by masks.
Those are the images from Ferguson, Missouri, in the weeks since a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, his body left lying in the street for 4 hours.
The protests in Ferguson that followed the shooting have been mostly peaceful, but when night falls, the scene has changed into one that calls to mind images from Iraq, from Syria, from the riots of the Arab Spring.
But this is America, viewers say. How could that happen here? And, most important, could it happen where I live, too?
The easy answer is yes, it could. The national government has been slowly doling out used military equipment to local police departments since the implementation of the Pentagon’s 1033 Program.
Put into law in 1996, the program was created to transfer out-of-use Department of Defense property – small arms, ammunition, and various other equipment – into the crime-fighting hands of state and local agencies that otherwise might not be able to afford it.
The program was intended to combat a rise of violent drug-related crime. And, in fact, the program’s outline specifically states that a preference should be given to applications from agencies seeking equipment that would be used for counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities.
An easily searchable online database shows what equipment different counties have acquired through the program.
In Whiteside, Lee, and Ogle counties, the equipment requested seems almost banal compared to what other agencies have asked for. In the Sauk Valley, it’s mostly just shotguns, rifles, and trucks. Ogle County, according to the registry, has received more equipment than both Lee and Whiteside counties, including, in 2006, a $190,000 helicopter.
Local agencies’ equipment is pretty standard issue, authorities say – guns, tasers, bullet-proof vests, batons, tear gas, body armor, gas masks, helmets. Ogle County has a few Humvees; Whiteside County has one.
“You always want more, but in my case I would just as soon have more personnel that could have better training,” Lee County Sheriff John Varga said. “A lot of it for me is justifying having it. Yeah, last winter when it was bad, to have a Humvee ... would that have helped? Yes. But to use it once or twice ... You’ve got to justify where you’re at and what you’re doing.”
Some of the items available are not needed by local departments, according to Dixon Police Chief Danny Langloss.
“Agencies like ours just can’t afford to have all that type of stuff,” Langloss said. “And we don’t need it. ... It would be a waste of money for every agency to try to do it.”
If faced with a riot situation, authorities say, one of their first calls would be to the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System. Based in Springfield, the agency provides backup and extra equipment to any department that needs it.
According to a 2012 report from the FBI, since 1993, the violent crime rate has dropped dramatically – practically cut in half. The number of domestic terrorist attacks, too, has sharply declined, according to a December 2012 report from the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).
START tracked every terror attack from 1970 through 2011, and the data was decisive: attacks are less frequent now than they were a generation ago, though that doesn’t mean the severity of the attacks has declined. While less frequent and fatal now, attacks that do occur come on a much larger scale.
“Law enforcement officers today are not as safe as they were 15 years ago,” Langloss said. “And it took a lot of incidents in the country that are well documented, of officers being outgunned, before changes were finally made and investments were made, and then these military surplus programs came in to save taxpayers money.”
Sterling Police Chief Ron Pothoff agreed.
“We’ve never really used any of [the military equipment],” Potthoff said. “We just thought we should have it, and we weren’t able to budget for it.
“We’re not just talking about violent crime here,” Potthoff said. “We’re talking about drug dealers and gang members who are drug dealers. There may not be a violent crime. Drug sales are not a violent crime, but the people doing it are sometimes violent, so when we do a search for it we have to be geared up for it.
“Back in the ’70s, I’d knock on the door ... and go in with my suit and my handgun. ... Now most people want to go in with a tactical team.”
The prevalence of mass shootings, especially in schools, is a gruesome and dark trend that modern police agencies have to face. That’s particularly true when you consider the firepower accessible to criminals today can be military-grade.
“When you look at an active-shooter situation – be it at a school, be it at a business – these shooters aren’t armed with just handguns,” Langloss said. “They’re going in with high-capacity magazines, assault rifles, AK-47s, shotguns.
“People say, ‘Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.’ Well, don’t bring a handgun to a fight where someone has an AR-15. You are completely outgunned. You are going to lose.
“So, to have the ability to respond to these things – they’re rare, but they happen. We have to have that ability.”
George Burruss, a professor of criminal justice at Southern Illinois University, doesn’t see a problem with outfitting agencies with military-grade equipment. He said that the most important thing is that the agency knows when and how to use it appropriately.
“i don’t think you can just say that because they have this military equipment, they’re using it inappropriately, or they shouldn’t have it,” Burruss said. “I think the bigger picture is how they’re using it – training, as far as when you should use it. ...
“My concern would be, like with a lot of things in society, we look at one particular aspect of it. But there’s a bigger picture that you need to look at, and that’s the police-community relations, the organization of the police. ... There’s lots of different factors.”
Rock Falls Police Chief Mike Kuelper said his department has M16 assault rifles issued through the military surplus program.
“We have two or three AK-47s that we recovered a couple years ago from people who had them illegally,” Kuelper said. “So they already had them, so we decided we needed to get weapons to match what’s on the street.”
The Sterling Police Department, Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department, Lee County Sheriff’s Department, and Dixon Police Department also received M16s from the surplus program.
“One of the things that I worry about today, and that’s demonstrated all over the place, is that the police [get] no respect,” Whiteside County Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said. “The criminals are worse. The crimes are worse. There’s less respect for police ...
“What are we supposed to do, go unarmed? So we protect ourselves, and we look intimidating. ... In my opinion, I don’t see anything wrong with it at all.”