In 2003, the nascent Department of Homeland Security began issuing millions of dollars to cities and regions for counterterrorism equipment and training. It was part of a broader plan to buttress the nation, still reeling from 9/11, against future attacks. But that the influx of that equipment—automated license plate readers, drones, facial recognition technology, tactical body armor and hulking armored vehicles, sound cannons originally developed for military use—fundamentally altered the landscape of American policing.
Technology and equipment migrated from the various fronts in the war on terror to small-town police departments back in the homeland. The grants were supposed to fund counterterrorism, but they became troughs of money for general crime fighting. And secrecy made it hard for the public and media to discover the scope, the privacy implications, and the effectiveness of the new police gear.
"This age of governmental secrecy comes hand in hand with the reduction in our privacy, and it's kind of a lethal combination in terms of, frankly, a functioning democracy," says Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The idea that we have any say in our law enforcement regimes, in our national security regimes, seems to have gone by the wayside in favor of massive secrecy."
Today, police departments across the country are using more than $1 billion in surplus military equipment handed out since 9/11. A study released last year by Brown University's Costs of War project found that the Department of Defense's 1033 program, which offers free surplus military equipment to police departments, has transferred at least $1.6 billion worth of equipment to departments across the country since 9/11, compared to just $27 million before the attacks.
That equipment includes mine-resistant, armored-protective vehicles, or MRAPs—armored personnel carriers designed to survive bomb blasts on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan. The study found 1,114 MRAPs currently in the possession of American police departments.
And the 1033 program is dwarfed by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants to cities and states. Bloomberg reported last year that states and metro areas have received $24.3 billion since 2003 from two DHS programs, the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative.
For example, the city council in Vallejo, California, recently agreed to expand its network of automated license plate readers after receiving $30,000 in Urban Areas Security Initiative grants.
While those funds have gone toward projects to improve local disaster preparedness and responses, they've also been a driver of police militarization and of waste that has little to do with stopping a terrorist attack.
In 2012, the late Sen. Tom Coburn (R–Ok.) released a report detailing how local police departments "are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones." In Reason, Gene Healey noted some of the lowlights: sno-cone machines for police in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, and a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio.
"If in the days after 9/11 lawmakers were able to cast their gaze forward ten years, I imagine they would be surprised to see how a counter-terrorism initiative aimed at protecting our largest cities has transformed into another parochial grant program," Coburn wrote.
The small town of Keene, New Hampshire, known for its annual pumpkin festival, also bought a Bearcat armored personnel carrier. "Do I think Al Qaeda is going to target Pumpkin Fest?" the Keene police chief said at the time. "No, but are there fringe groups that want to make a statement? Yes." (As it turns out, Keene's pumpkin festival was the scene of mayhem two years later. The culprits were not fringe groups but drunk college students.)
Over the last decade, police departments also began using DHS grants to purchase cell-phone tracking technology, known as Stingrays or cell-site simulators. The devices, which were also originally developed for military use, intercept cell phone signals by spoofing cell towers.
When reporters and civil liberties groups began poking into which departments were using this technology and how, the feds started meddling in local public records requests and court cases to keep the information sealed. In one case, U.S. marshals confiscated records on Stingray surveillance from a courthouse in Florida just hours before the records were due to be handed over to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
"When it's being used by state and local law enforcement, it's overwhelmingly being used for regular police activities," Nathan Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told me in 2014. "In Tallahassee, not one use was for counterterrorism. I expect that's true everywhere else. It demonstrates how easy it is to get these DHS grants and how little oversight there is once the money goes through."
The civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 following the police killing of Michael Brown brought the issue of police militarization into sharp relief, as news photographs showed police decked out in tactical gear.
As military-grade surveillance equipment and technology trickled down to local police departments, so did the federal government's secrecy regime. In 2018, New York's highest court ruled that the New York Police Department (NYPD) could invoke the CIA's infamous "can neither confirm nor deny" answer in response to public records requests by two Muslim men seeking documents on whether they had been surveilled by the department. (A 2011 Associated Press investigation had revealed that the NYPD's Demographics Unit, with help from the CIA, was using undercover officers and paid informants to extensively surveil Muslim communities, not just in New York City but also in New Jersey and other places far outside its jurisdiction.) The court's ruling extended a power once confined to our most secretive national security agencies to a municipal police department.
The New York Times reported this week on how the NYPD's impressive arsenal of surveillance tools—camera networks, facial recognition technology, mobile X-ray vans, and license plate readers—has become ubiquitous in fighting low-level crime.
Although it's been 20 years since 9/11, the local and federal budgets for counterterrorism and surveillance equipment just keep growing.
"We need better mechanisms to make sure that things passed in a crisis don't become permanent and don't metastasize out of their original purpose," Cohn says. "And both of those things we've seen since September 11."