The ACLU has created a petition calling on the federal government to stop arming local and state police agencies with Pentagon hand-me-downs until further review.
In two decades, the Department of Defense has handed off more than $5 billion worth of gear free of charge. The swag includes everything from rifles to tanks to boots to night-vision goggles -- pieces of equipment that police spokesmen argue are necessary to keep officers safe.
"Being protected is one thing," says Teresa Nelson, legal director of ACLU of Minnesota. "But being protected in a way that makes the police look like soldiers, I think, is counterproductive."
No doubt, in the event of a terrorist attack the public would be served with advanced equipment. But as the street clashes in Ferguson, Missouri, showed us back in August, police also use Pentagon gear as a way to intimidate protesters. (To their credit, Hennepin County sheriff's deputies and Minneapolis police officers stayed far away from an August 28 solidarity rally downtown.)
Police agencies across the country have also argued that the gear is needed to plug holes in their budgets -- a position that Nelson sympathizes with. But if it's a question of funding, why not talk about funding? Raids on the homes of suspected pot dealers and images of camouflaged snipers with badges only amps up fears of living in a police state.
"In order to do effective law enforcement," Nelson says, "you need the trust of the community. It's hard to build that trust when the community views you as an occupying army."
We asked the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for its take, but never heard back. Find the petition on ACLU website.