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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.
Interactive Map: States Spend Billions on Homeland Security
Capital Police Shooting

Atlanta Police S.W.A.T. members searched a building for a shooting suspect in July of 2010., John Bazemore

The buying spree has transformed local police departments into small, army-like forces, and put intimidating equipment into the hands of civilian officers. And that is raising questions about whether the strategy has gone too far, creating a culture and capability that jeopardizes public safety and civil rights while creating an expensive false sense of security.

“The argument for up-armoring is always based on the least likely of terrorist scenarios,” says Mark Randol, a former terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress. “Anyone can get a gun and shoot up stuff. No amount of SWAT equipment can stop that.”

Local police bristle at the suggestion that they’ve become “militarized,” arguing the upgrade in firepower and other equipment is necessary to combat criminals with more lethal capabilities. They point to the 1997 Los Angeles-area bank robbers who pinned police for hours with assault weapons, the gun-wielding student who perpetrated the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and the terrorists who waged a bloody rampage in Mumbai, India, that left 164 people dead and 300 wounded in 2008.

The new weaponry and battle gear, they insist, helps save lives in the face of such threats. “I don’t see us as militarizing police; I see us as keeping abreast with society,” former Los Angeles Police chief William Bratton says. “And we are a gun-crazy society.”

“I don’t see us as militarizing police; I see us as keeping abreast with society.”

Adds Fargo Police Lt. Ross Renner, who commands the regional SWAT team: “It’s foolish to not be cognizant of the threats out there, whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, or Fargo. Our residents have the right to be protected. We don’t have everyday threats here when it comes to terrorism, but we are asked to be prepared.”

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