The killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has catapulted the quiet, yet steady, militarization of police forces across the U.S. to global attention. As law enforcement officers descended on the town of 21,000 equipped with armored trucks, body armor, camouflage, and assault rifles, and fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of protesters during the last two weeks, civilians and politicians are making call to rein in the weapons arsenals cops have been amassing.
The stockpiling began in the 1990s, as Congress implemented the military-transfer program to equip police with automatic weapons and armored trucks to better protect themselves against drug gangs and neutralize armed assailants like the two men who carried out the Columbine High School massacre.
Federal grants and the Pentagon's 1033 program accelerated after 9/11, and according to The New York Times, as U.S. forces began to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, police departments across the nation amassed an even greater supply of surplus weapons--tens of thousands of machine guns, 200,000 ammunition magazines, thousands of fatigues and pieces of camouflage, night-vision equipment, and hundreds of silencers, armored cars, and aircraft.
Ferguson was not the first time police forces have been deployed with military-style gear and weapons. SWAT teams are being sent out on routine jobs across the country thousands of times a year, the Times reports.
In the wake of Ferguson, Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, says he will review the 1033 program. And in September, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) plans to introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act to prevent the Department of Defense from giving certain automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and equipment to local police forces.
How will the call to demilitarize the police impact the businesses that manufacture all those armored trucks, assault rifles, and other equipment? Inc. spoke with armored truck manufacturer Lenco and rifle manufacturer Daniel Defense to see how their businesses could be affected and how it felt as a business owner to see their products being used in Ferguson.
Don't blame the equipment
Daniel Defense, a Black Creek, Georgia-based rifle and accessories manufacturer, sells its flagship product, the Daniel Defense DDM4 automatic rifle and rail system, to the U.S. Department of Defense, United States Special Operations Command, foreign military agencies, and civilians. Founded in 2002 by Marty Daniel, Daniel Defense started out manufacturing rails, pieces of metal used to attach scopes, laser sights, and other accessories to guns. In 2009, Daniel Defense started manufacturing its own rifles and cold hammer forged barrels, becoming one of five companies worldwide that make both.
Coincidentally, earlier this year the three-time Inc. 5000 company made its first sale of the DDM4 to law enforcement agencies, selling to the Missouri State Police and North Dakota Highway Patrol. Daniel says he's glad his company's weapons were on the ground in Ferguson. "We sell most of our guns to civilians in their homes, so our police need to be at least as well armed as our citizens," he says, adding that civilians can only buy semi-automatic rifles while police and military buy the fully-automatic version.
Daniel says "peace comes through strength, not disarmament" and believes demilitarizing the police would be a mistake. "At certain times, I am sure police have overstepped their bounds. But it's about the training, not the equipment," he says. "If there is an issue of being aggressive, it would not be about the equipment, it would be about the person's behavior."
A broad customer base should insulate the company in the event police forces become demilitarized, Daniel says. "That should not affect us. We sell to the military, we sell to police, and we sell to civilians," he says. "There are differences in the guns we sell to civilians, but that shouldn't impact sales."
"It's sad for us"
If you don't know the name Lenco, you know the Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based company's signature vehicle--an armored truck used by police, the military, and government officials called the BearCat. The trucks were used to evacuate people during the Boston Marathon bombings, are stationed at nuclear power plants around the world, and are used by the State Department in hostile regions. Police departments in 95 out of the top 100 largest urban areas in the U.S. have a BearCat as well. Not surprisngly, the truck was ubiquitous in the news footage from Ferguson.
Lenco vice president Lenny Light, whose grandfather started the company in 1981, says that after 9/11, the majority of sales to police departments came from Department of Homeland Security grants. Recently though, police forces have been buying them with state funds or asset forfeiture capital.
Light says the calls to demilitarize police will not impact his sales, but regardless he is not proud of the way Lenco's vehicles are being associated with police aggression against peaceful protesters.
"What has made us so successful is the unquestioned need for our vehicles. There isn't a police officer in the country who would say we don't need an armored vehicle," he says. "Now that they are being [used] as an aggressive vehicle, violating people's rights, it's sad for us because that was not the reason we developed the vehicle. That's not why they're necessary."
Despite the negative attention, Light believes since Lenco is not an offensive vehicle--it has no guns mounted and is meant as a mobile bunker to safely evacuate victims and police--the company will be able to overcome the association with police action in Ferguson.
"The only thing we can do is rely our customers to come to the equipment's aid and in essence come to our aid," he says. "You'll see the law enforcement community stand up for the equipment that they care most about."