Militarizing Mayberry

America, long ago, passed very strong laws limiting the ability of the federal government to deploy troops domestically. These laws, the Insurrection Act and the Posse Commitatus Act, prevent federal forces from being used domestically except in the most dire of national emergencies. Though weakened by the 2007 Defense Authorization Bill which, in the wake of President Bush being blamed for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina, watered down the justification needed for the use of federal forces domestically, these laws are still very much in effect and are some of the most important limits on federal power in federal code.

But it seems as though the feds have found a way to go around these laws. Across the nation, under the guise of national security, local local law enforcement agencies are being militarized through money made available by Congress. This leaves us with local police officers so thoroughly armed that they are almost indistinguishable, in some ways, from soldiers.

Nestled amid plains so flat the locals joke you can watch your dog run away for miles, Fargo treasures its placid lifestyle, seldom pierced by the mayhem and violence common in other urban communities. North Dakota’s largest city has averaged fewer than two homicides a year since 2005, and there’s not been a single international terrorism prosecution in the last decade.

But that hasn’t stopped authorities in Fargo and its surrounding county from going on an $8 million buying spree to arm police officers with the sort of gear once reserved only for soldiers fighting foreign wars.

Every city squad car is equipped today with a military-style assault rifle, and officers can don Kevlar helmets able to withstand incoming fire from battlefield-grade ammunition. And for that epic confrontation—if it ever occurs—officers can now summon a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret. For now, though, the menacing truck is used mostly for training and appearances at the annual city picnic, where it’s been parked near the children’s bounce house.

“Most people are so fascinated by it, because nothing happens here,” says Carol Archbold, a Fargo resident and criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University. “There’s no terrorism here.”

Like Fargo, thousands of other local police departments nationwide have been amassing stockpiles of military-style equipment in the name of homeland security, aided by more than $34 billion in federal grants since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a Daily Beast investigation conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Not only is a waste of money to militarize law enforcement officers in relatively low-crime areas like Fargo and North Dakota in general, it’s a worrisome bit of mission creep that has our law enforcement departments becoming more and more dependent on federal money for equipment and outfitting.

Obviously, a federal grant allowing local law enforcement to buy assault rifles, tanks and…uh…snow cone machines isn’t the same thing as a federal take over of law enforcement. But it is wasteful spending at a time when our nation can ill afford it, and you really have to wonder why people think even the communities in our nation with the least amount of crime need to be patrolled by law enforcement officials armed as if they were in Baghdad instead of Fargo.

Rob Port

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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