(Popular Mechanics) IThe shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on August 9 has once again scratched at the difficult topic of race relations in the United States. But the subsequent confrontations between demonstrators and camo-clad cops toting assault rifles and backed up by an imposing armored vehicle has brought attention to another issue: the gradual militarization of civilian law enforcement agencies. "The number of SWAT teams in America has exploded," says Tim Lynch, who heads the Cato Institute’s Project on Law Enforcement. "We’re finding them in small towns where they really aren’t experiencing violent crime."
Over the last 20 years, police departments around the country have obtained mountains of military equipment from the federal government. But the harsh scenes from Ferguson have made plenty of people wonder: Do the cops really need all this stuff? And what would happen to it if it didn't go to law enforcement?