There's little intelligent commentary anyone can provide beyond Radley Balko's framing of the events in Ferguson within the greater overall trend of police militarization in the United States. Police are increasingly becoming an occupying military force, with military weapons turned against peaceful protesters and the communities they are supposed to be serving.
The culprit is usually cited as the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, or the 1033 program--though it is not the only federal program that provides local police with heavy military equipment. Since the 1990's, the 1033 program has provided local police departments with military equipment for confronting heavily armed drug cartels and terrorists.
My perception is that most people believe that police militarization is a mistake--a system that isn't working as intended. In other words, the 1033 program was designed to protect communities from extraordinary threats--terrorists and machine gun- and grenade-wielding drug lords--but the use of these military grade weapons on the communities they are supposed to protect is a wholly unintended, unforeseen consequence. Unfortunately, good intentions have inadvertently created a system that turns local police into occupying paramilitary forces.
This misconception needs to be corrected. Even a cursory look at the 1033 program reveals a situation that is unfolding exactly as intended by the creators of that policy. This isn't a program that is being misused in a manner never intended; everything is going according to plan.
Amanda Taub's otherwise excellent explanation of the 1033 program is a perfect example of the perception that the 1033 program has gone haywire--rather than working exactly as intended:
While the 1033 program's intent may have been to equip specialized units for extreme, dangerous situations, fighting al-Qaeda sleeper cells or powerful drug cartels, the effect has been to incorporate SWAT-style raids into ordinary police operations.She concludes that same paragraph with:
This may partly be because the program requires that all equipment issued through the 1033 program be used within one year of the date it is granted. That means that if police departments want to keep their new gear, they can't wait for a rare emergency like an active shooter or hostage situation in order to use it.The 1033 program has resulted in tiny, rural hamlets receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of military equipment (see here, here, and here for examples), in addition to the millions of dollars worth of equipment that found its way to Ferguson, a town of just 21,000. Aside from this buildup of military equipment, the 1033 program contains a requirement that all equipment be used within a year or it will be forfeited (here are documents from state governments that confirm this: NM, GA, MN, WI). No, the intent could not have been to protect towns of a few thousand people from the extremely rare situation of an assault by drug lords or terror plot. A terrorist attack or violent confrontation with drug cartels firing machine guns and grenade launchers on a town of several thousand cannot be expected to be an annual event. If this equipment was intended to safeguard against extremely rare, once-in-a-lifetime events, there would be no requirement that it be used within a year. But since the equipment has a one year use-it-or-lose-it provision, there can be no option but to turn that equipment on the community, and the framers of the 1033 program had to have known it. The intimidation and suppression of basic Constitutional rights in Ferguson isn't the result of a program being misused; it's the result of a program working exactly as intended.