At least 117 colleges have acquired surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The surplus military gear was made available under a program known as the 1033 program, which shot to public attention following the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.
Campus police departments have used the program to obtain military equipment as mundane as men’s trousers (Yale University) and as serious as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (Ohio State University).
Modified grenade launchers were also acquired, by University of Central Florida, and Hinds Community College, whilst at least 60 institutions used the program to obtain M-16 assault rifles.
Trousers and office supplies aside, why do campus police departments require military equipment designed to withstand roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Among those contacted by the Chronicle was Michael Qualls, an associate professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University, Georgia. In Qualls’ view, there is no reason for campus police departments not to gain access to military equipment:
“If we continue on with the 1033 program, as those items become obsolete at the military level and if they become available, why not get ’em?” Mr. Qualls said. “It’s better to be prepared than not prepared.”
However, one thing that the events of Ferguson showed was that once police departments possess military equipment, they are increasingly likely to use it. The improper use of such equipment can further exacerbate tensions with law enforcement, and is potentially disastrous.
America has already seen the disastrous consequences that can occur when a militarized force clashes with students. In 1970 it resulted in the death of four young college students, in what became known as the Kent State massacre.
This senseless loss of life was recently used as inspiration for a sweatshirt design, in what was probably a publicity stunt by Urban Outfitters. Regardless of your view of the garment, it’s a reminder of what is at stake when it comes to police militarization.