As a national debate on police militarization is waged amid the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., newly-published data show that police in Orange County have received hundreds of machine guns and other equipment under a Pentagon program that transfers military gear to local agencies.
Police agencies in the county obtained at least 359 assault rifles, 257 body armor pieces, two armored vehicles and a helicopter under the program, according to a database showing the equipment transfers to counties nationwide and published by the New York Times last week.
That might seem like a lot, but consider Los Angeles County’s share — 3,408 assault rifles, 1,696 body armor pieces, three mine-resistant vehicles, four other kinds of armored vehicles, three grenade launchers, 44 pistols, 827 night vision pieces, 15 helicopters and a plane.
The “Pentagon-to-police transfer program” was created in the 1990s to help beleaguered police departments take on drug gangs, a Times article states. And while crime has fallen dramatically since then, the winding down of two wars meant a massive amount of surplus military gear, the newspaper reported.
Some of that hardware ended up in the hands of local police agencies, a reality that has been on full display in recent weeks with the protests in Ferguson over the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.
The imagery of those protests — of armored vehicles and lines of commando-style officers in military fatigues confronting civilians — has critics arguing that the police are being armed too heavily.
Orange County is also familiar with militarized police responses.
In 2012, an unarmed Latino was shot fleeing from police in Anaheim, and a downtown riot broke out that damaged 20 businesses. The police responded in the following days with armored personnel carriers and snipers perched on rooftops, prompting some to cry that the city looked like a war zone.
To see the whole New York Times database, click here.