Pentagon program that gives military gear to police draws scrutiny

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Police on an armored vehicle patrol downtown Walnut Creek, Calif., last Monday after a protest resulted in looting. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

 

 

The high plains and rugged mountains of Wyoming aren’t exactly synonymous with high crime rates or modern warfare, much less the kinds of mass protests currently roiling the country. But police agencies in the sparsely populated state have been arming themselves to the teeth in recent years.

Just 80,000 people reside in sprawling Natrona County, home of the city of Casper, yet the county sheriff’s office has scored three military-style armored trucks since 1997 worth a combined $195,000, plus a $126,000 cargo carrier. The sheriff’s office in nearby Campbell County, which has just 48,000 residents, helped itself to a $658,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, or MRAP, in 2013 and a $733,000 version the following year. In the capital city of Cheyenne, police ordered a pair of MRAPs worth a combined $1.42 million.

All of it has been virtually free, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense and its 1033 program, which has given law enforcement agencies across the country access to a huge array of surplus military weapons, equipment and, reportedly, more than 13,000 MRAP vehicles, many of which have been seen driving on city streets recently as police confront those protesting the death of George Floyd in police custody. It has contributed to what many say is an alarming militarization of civilian police forces sworn to protect, not attack, citizens. And it’s drawing fresh scrutiny from those who decry the aggressive crackdown on protesters, and the killing of unarmed black Americans, by police.

Controversial for many years, the 1033 program now faces renewed, bipartisan calls in Congress to limit it or shut it down.

“As a combat veteran and proud Marine, very little of my equipment or training was relevant to policing Phoenix or other American communities,” U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and military veteran, told The New York Times. “Our neighborhoods aren’t war zones.”

Originally developed out of need to protect U.S. soldiers from improvised explosive devices and ambushes in Iraq and Afghanistan, MRAP production ended in 2012 after nearly 27,000 were built by seven manufacturers, but many are still in use. Weighing up to 18 tons, they typically feature a V-shaped hull, raised chassis, armored plating and blast-resistant underbodies. Law enforcement agencies cite their usefulness in responding to natural disasters situations like floods or hurricanes, for use by SWAT teams or for responding to terrorist attacks.

But they’ve also featured in the police response to Black Lives Matter protests in cities including Minneapolis, Miami and Washington D.C. According to BuzzFeed News, the most recent inventory of property held by local law enforcement agencies shows that police in New York City have two MRAP vehicles worth $1.5 million. The Chicago Police Department helped itself to one to go with a $916,000 helicopter and more than 300 military rifles, part of a total haul of more than $1.8 million worth of gear.

In suburban Winthrop Harbor, Ill., a tony enclave of 6,767, police have six helicopters from the program, part of $1 million worth of military gear the department now possesses.

The 1033 program is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency. Much of the equipment is standard-issue gear including office supplies, furniture, firearms and other equipment. Local law enforcement agencies can acquire the equipment through a wide array of federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Treasury and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Between 4% and 7% of what is transferred is considered controlled property that cannot be distributed to the public.

Details of the program, including what equipment went where, were a closely held secret until late in 2014, when the Pentagon released details, identifying for the first time the police departments that received equipment. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news service, reported that year that the program had delivered $5 billion worth of equipment between 1990 and 2014, including $1.4 billion in tactical military equipment. The program began in 1990 to funnel surplus military equipment to help police departments wage the war on drugs. It expanded in 1997, and then again after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But then Ferguson, Mo., erupted in protests in 2014 following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer. Images of police armed with assault weapons and other military equipment obtained under the program shocked the nation.

President Obama enacted restrictions on the program in 2015 after a review it ordered a year before found that the rules vary between the federal departments participating in 1033, that the program lacked transparency, and that equipment often piled up at levels “inconsistent with the size and training capacity” of smaller departments. Despite the restrictions, BuzzFeed found that local law enforcement agencies had still netted more than $850 million worth of equipment since Ferguson.

Birch Run, Mich., is a village of about 1,600 known for its outlet mall and a diner famous for serving a BLT sandwich with a pound of bacon on it. Its police department has $50,000 worth of military gear, including a $14,000 “interrogator set.”

In 2017, the GAO Government Accountability Office, as part of a routine review of the program, set up a fictitious federal agency and obtained more than 100 controlled items worth an estimated $1.2 million, including simulated M-16 rifles and pipe bombs meant for training but that the GAO said could be rendered lethal if modified.

President Trump rescinded the restrictions placed on the program by his predecessor in 2017.

 

Today, the list of equipment held by local police agencies shows how they have benefited from military largesse.

In Washington state, police in Aberdeen (population 16,654) got a mine-resistant vehicle worth $733,000 in 2014. So did police in Walla Walla (pop. 32,986), in southeast Washington’s bucolic wine country. The King County Sheriff’s Office in the Seattle area nabbed a four-wheel ATV valued at $11,000, four helicopters totaling $3.42 million and a $19,000 mine-detecting set, part of a total haul worth $4.09 million.

In Illinois, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office obtained 11 utility trucks valued at $705,682.

In suburban Winthrop Harbor, Ill., a tony enclave of 6,767, police have six helicopters from the program, part of $1 million worth of military gear the department now possesses.

MRAP vehicles have also gone to police in locations as incongruous as Aberdeen, S.D., and Lewiston, Maine.

In Michigan, the police department for Thetford Township, a rural area of fewer than 7,000 residents just north of Flint, has a whopping 53 line items for nearly $280,000 worth of equipment, including a nearly $19,000 set of bulletproof armor, a $5,600 mine-detection kit and two thermal sights valued at $12,000 each. The department was also the beneficiary of two utility trucks valued at nearly $64,000 apiece, delivered in 2012.

Not far up Interstate 75 is Birch Run, a village of about 1,600 known for its outlet mall and a diner famous for serving a BLT sandwich with a pound of bacon on it. Its police department has benefitted from $50,000 worth of military gear, including a $21,000 portable light unit and a $14,000 “interrogator set.”

To see what equipment police agencies near you have obtained under the 1033 program, check out this comprehensive database at the Defense Logistics Agency’s website.



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Saurabh Shukla

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