Fund Tha Police: A Website Looks At How Our Police Are Being Militarized
"The Future Looks Viral" is a weekly series where we profile the people behind an innovative, new online project, be it a parody Twitter account, web series or interesting Instagram profile. They all have one thing in common: the potential to go viral.
The scenes coming out of Ferguson, Mo. late this summer are still deeply ingrained in our minds. Protesters with their hands up, air filled with tear gas, police officers in combat gear. The racial, social and political issues surrounding the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police and the subsequent protests in the St. Louis suburb are far from being resolved, but Ferguson has slipped from the mainstream media in recent weeks.
Fund Tha Police hopes to change that. The website, launched in mid-September by Nate Gagnon, J Hausmann and Lane Jordan, who all work in advertising, is a searchable database where users can plug in their zip codes and find out how much military funding their county's police department receives from the 1033 Program, which moves excess Department of Defense property to law enforcement agencies around the U.S. and its territories. Fund Tha Police, whose title is a play on the N.W.A. song "F**k tha Police," uses this data to show how much military funding and property went to your local police department from 2006 to the present. Gagnon spoke with T-Lounge over the phone to discuss how the project was created, surprising results from the data and why we should still be talking about Ferguson.
Why did you want to create the project?
We all kind of saw what was going on in Ferguson, and it was a really unfortunate and avoidable situation. The good news is that it sparked a lot of good debates, a lot of racial debates but also some really good debates about the makeup of our police forces and why they look like our military now. So that was basically, I guess, the general impetus for it, but John Oliver, who's been absolutely killing it this year with his show, he did a great thing about Ferguson and the militarization of the police. We saw that, and then me and a couple friends, we keep an eye on GitHub, and the code was released for the Pentagon's 1033 Program. And we decided to see if we could get that information into people's hands in kind of a stickier way than just a spreadsheet, which is what it existed as.
Why did you feel this was an important topic for people to know about?
There's two reasons. One, a lot of this military equipment is going to these police departments, but not a lot of military training. So a lot of times these police officers, who've trained very hard to be officers of the law are not trained to operate these different pieces of equipment and assault rifles and just different pieces of combat gear. So it's kind of giving them the keys to a car they're not ready to drive yet. It's also, in a very roundabout way, using the taxpayers' money that's been going towards homeland security initially to keep us safe, and in a way, using it against American citizens when you look at things like Ferguson where they, you know, put out these tanks and whatnot, tear gas and combat gear on literally unarmed citizens. So there's a couple of reasons why.
And then the other thing is, is this what we want police to look like in America? Do we want them to look like the military? Do we want scenes from Ferguson that remind us of war zones in the Middle East? Or is it basically that we want a police officer that looks like the "Boys in Blue" and that we trust and can rely on kind of thing? On the site, there's a quick, little blurb that basically says "serve and protect" is kind of a way to "seek and destroy," and that's kind of a worry that I think people have giving our local police departments access to this military equipment.
After you found the information on GitHub, why did you decide to present it as a searchable database?
It's one of those things where we had the code before we knew what to do with it. And also before we knew what kind of wrapper we wanted to give it to. We liked the idea that "Fund" is just as bad a word as the famous N.W.A. song. As you play with the site a bit, you find some really interesting stuff. I'm originally from Chicago, and our neighbors there are Gary, Ind., which is right across the border. And they got seven helicopters. Sometimes you're just dumbfounded by the stuff these local police departments have gotten. Like I said, there are a lot of really good uses for the 1033 program. There's a lot of equipment and gear that's not military-based that can be stuff from locker room equipment to food storage stuff to appliances in the kitchen. It does a lot of good as well. But to find out there's a small town in New Hampshire that has a tank, it kind of makes you wonder why and question whether things have gotten that bad where we need our police force to be armed like our military. We want to give people a chance to put in the information as quickly as possible and hopefully play around and search some other big cities.
Was there anything that really surprised you in the data?
I mentioned the Gary, Ind. seven helicopters thing. That was pretty interesting. My buddy Lane [Jordan], who we worked on this with, he's from a smaller town in Texas, and they've got a tank, like a mine-resistant tank, and he was kind of blown away by that, that they would have that there for some reason. I think it's just those little things you don't expect.
As the news cycle goes, issues fall out of the headlines, but the issues surrounding the events in Ferguson are far from resolved. How will the site help keep the conversation going?
Yeah, it's tricky. The thing is, there's a lot of stuff going on in the Middle East right now with ISIS, and that's big news. This is how the media cycle works. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the over-stepping of police power is going to be a theme that kind of recurs, just because there's a lot of tensions there now. I hope it doesn't. If it does, I don't think this site needs to be promoted, as you would a typical site. I think it's more just a tool, a resource that's out there that keeps people asking these questions. We're working on a couple of things of trying to get some more exposure to it just so people can find out this information, but nothing huge. Ideally, it's a conversation that keeps happening on its own. Hopefully, the site helps it just a little bit.
What are you hoping people take away from the site?
We want them to know basically what their police department looks like. In some cases, if they live in a small town, and it's something that's a big deal, and their small town has a bunch of tanks or something for seemingly no reason, I think they should bring that up with their police department or local representatives. I don't know that there's necessarily an answer to this stuff. I think it's more so us continuing have a conversation. Hopefully, people just share it around and get something from it and find out just how much gear they're actually getting.