Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs documents obtained by Gannett Wisconsin Media under the state's open records law show that 219 police agencies have received more than 67,000 military-grade items since 2004.
The agencies acquired the items through a program known as 1033. It began in 1990 as an initiative of the nation's war on drugs. Equipment transfers increased in 1997 with the passing of another piece of legislation and again after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The federal government withholds ownership of the equipment, but the agencies must pay for the gear's maintenance and transportation.
President Obama this week called for a clear separation between the military and police agencies following a forceful police response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. He said he may consider requesting a review of the transfers, which are reported to have climbed to $5 billion since 1997. The debate about potential changes to the program has also been reignited in Congress.
The Brown County Sheriff's Department received a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, known as an MRAP, in April. Lt. Dan Sandberg, commander of the department's SWAT team, said the military-grade vehicle would be helpful in incidents with heavily armed assailants.
"That's the only kind of vehicle that will protect you from something like that," Sandberg said. "People now have .50 caliber rifles ... and we have to be prepared for something like that. I hope this MRAP sits in the garage for nothing more than training. I hope we never have to pull it out."
Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson said the MRAP at his department has proven to be an asset.
"We used it just two days ago serving a drug warrant where we suspected the individual would be armed," Oleson said. "I know these are in the spotlight after Ferguson and the president wants a review, but I hope to heck they don't go away."
The sheriff's department in Juneau County has received almost $3 million worth of equipment since 2004, while Milwaukee's Police Department has only received around $600,000.
The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concern about growing police militarization and plans to ask legislators to adopt more oversight of military surplus transfers.
"Ordinary people are debating this across the state," said Chris Ahmuty, the executive director of the organization's Wisconsin chapter. "Some of the equipment is useful, but you have to ask: What has it gotten you? All this military equipment?"