With protests over police brutality leading to calls for broad law enforcement reform, a decades-old Department of Defense program is facing renewed pressure from Congress to stem the flow of military equipment to police.
Local law enforcement agencies have obtained nearly half a billion dollars of surplus military equipment under the so-called 1033 Program since August 2017, when President Donald Trump lifted restrictions imposed by the Obama administration, a USA TODAY/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis found.
Because the Department of Defense does not report items that police obtained but later decommissioned or returned, the true amount of military equipment given to police since 2017 is probably even higher.
Value of military equipment transferred to local law enforcement
Local law enforcement agencies have received almost $454 million in surplus military equipment since Trump lifted restrictions on the 1033 Program. This is about the same amount law enforcement received while the Obama administration’s restrictions were in place.
Using federal data, the analysis found that law enforcement agencies largely gave up controversial items like grenade launchers and bayonets, previously prohibited under the Obama administration.
However, police have increasingly obtained other military-grade equipment such as riot gear and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the hulking, heavily-armored vehicles designed to withstand explosive blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such equipment has been spotted in Minneapolis and Spokane during protests sparked by the in-custody death of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man who died as a police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
According to the latest federal data, local police agencies now possess nearly 1,100 MRAPs through the program, nearly double the number in 2014, when protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, put the program under a microscope.
Legislation unveiled this week by House and Senate Democrats would go further than Obama’s executive order. Certain firearms, ammunition, grenade launchers, bayonets, mine-resistant vehicles, drones, silencers and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs) used to deter riots would be prohibited.
LRADs have been used on crowds of protesters in recent weeks, including in Austin, Texas on Saturday. Data from the Pentagon shows four of the $35,000 devices have been given to agencies in California and Colorado in recent years.
Proponents of the 1033 Program have said it provides a tremendous cost-saving and puts taxpayer-funded equipment to good use. The nation’s largest police union has said it opposes further restrictions.
Police agencies possess about $10.5 million worth of riot gear and so-called “non-lethal” weapons, such as pepper spray, through the program, nearly three times the amount they had in 2014, according to the Pentagon’s data.
Equipment in police possession via the 1033 Program
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who served in Iraq with the Marines, said local municipalities should have to justify to residents why police agencies need surplus military gear.
“It’s ridiculous that every small town in America thinks they need an MRAP because one is available,” Gallego said.
The 1033 program accounts for just a fraction of the military-grade equipment that local police have at their disposal, said Charles Mesloh, a weapons expert at Northern Michigan University.
Because they are relatively cheap, most of the so-called less-lethal projectiles — such as foam rounds, flash bangs and bean bag rounds — are purchased by police commercially.
Mesloh, who studies the safety and reliability of less-lethal weaponry, said he’s concerned about the lack of quality control and training in the industry. He added that he’s particularly concerned about skip-fire rounds, which are intended to be shot at the ground and bounce back up. Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
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“If you aim them directly at people, it’s like shooting wooden blocks at people,” Mesloh said. “I’ve argued about this for years about whether those should be in the toolkit.”
Program exploded after Iraq, Afghanistan
When military equipment goes unused, it’s transferred to the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency and goes into a giant repository for law enforcement to peruse and request. If not transferred for free to those agencies, the equipment is either donated, sold or destroyed.
Since the program began in 1990, the Department of Defense has loaned out more than $6 billion of equipment to 8,000 law enforcement agencies, according to a 2018 report from military think tank RAND.
Transfers grew more than 10-fold after 2006 as the U.S. military began offloading equipment no longer needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to data from the DLA, which administers the program.
A vast majority of the gear — representing about half the program’s value — is not controversial. It includes things like office furniture, generators and first aid kits. RAND estimates that from 2015 to 2017, 2.2 million of those items accounted for $1.2 billion.
But the program came under scrutiny during the 2014 Ferguson protests, after images of police riding on armored personnel carriers and carrying assault rifles flooded social media. As a result, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order that reduced police access to certain controversial items, such as grenade launchers, bayonets and MRAPs. From 2015 to 2017, those 3,000 items accounted for about $775 million.
The policy shifts only slowed certain categories and amounted to “window dressing,” said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has testified in favor of scrapping the program entirely.
“They could have turned off the spigot completely. The military doesn’t enjoy this program and its headaches,” Kraska said. “The solution isn’t to reform it, it’s to stop it.”
Over the past three decades, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has issued eight reports criticizing the record-keeping and control around the program. In July 2017, the office revealed that a watchdog group created a fictitious federal agency and obtained 100 restricted items worth more than $1.2 million, including night-vision goggles, fake training rifles and pipe bombs.
Despite the concerns about the program, Trump overturned the Obama administration’s restrictions in August 2017 via his own executive order. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy shift at a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Police during the cleanup after Hurricane Harvey, where he said some of the equipment was used.
“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Sessions said. “All you need to do is turn on a TV right now to see that for Houstonians this isn’t about appearances, it’s about getting the job done and getting everyone safe.”
The president of the FOP, the nation’s largest police union, told USA TODAY this week he was open to legislation prohibiting chokeholds and tracking officer misconduct, but that banning the military surplus gear was ill-advised.
“I know this equipment has been beneficial and has saved lives,” Patrick Yoes said.
Vehicles, helicopters drive acquisition totals
High-value vehicles, planes and helicopters are some of the most valuable items transferred to local police agencies over the years.
Records show Arizona’s Department of Public Safety received several aircraft and trucks worth more than $55 million since 2011. California Highway Patrol received a $22 million aircraft in 2016. Kentucky State Police received a plane, helicopter, several armored trucks and more than 500 rifles since 2004, according to the data.
But it isn’t just the large agencies getting high-priced military equipment.
In Willmar, Minn., population 19,600, police received a surplus diesel 2007 AM General up-armored Humvee from the military in August.
Chief Jim Felt said the vehicle would be used for emergency rescues, active shooter situations and for serving high-risk warrants. It could also be used for public relations events, he said.
“This program has saved our department thousands of dollars over the years,” Felt said, adding that he’s also received a generator, winter SWAT-team clothes and body armor through the program.
In Superior, Wis., Chief Nick Alexander prompted headlines in 2018 for returning the department’s six-wheeled MRAP. He replaced it with a smaller armored truck built for police.
“I see value in the 1033 program in terms of cost savings, but I’m very conscious of not trying to militarize our police,” Alexander said. “We have to have a litmus test of one, do we need it? And two, will it have community support?”
School districts still get gear
Returning equipment is always an option for the program, and school police departments have faced extra pressure in recent years to turn over their items.
In 2014, Arizona State University heeded calls to return 70 M16 rifles it received from the program. But at least 115 colleges and universities from Alabama to Wisconsin still possess more than 600 similar as rifles.
And the program isn’t just for higher ed. K-12 school districts also own about $1.4 million in gear, including dozens of assault rifles and one MRAP, according to the latest data from the federal government.
Rural Pennsylvania school police officer Tim Mott says he’s a “one man band” patrolling three campuses, with backup 30 minutes away. He requested first aid kits and other gear for the first time this year in case of a school shooting or lost child.
“I don’t need an AR or night vision goggles, but I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater for the whole program,” said Mott, of the Burgettstown school district. “I wanted to get a Humvee because we have a lot of rural terrain in our area.”
Al Kasper, chief of security at the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township near Indianapolis said his five full-time officers recently shipped back some rifles it had received in 2017 through the program since he didn’t think they were needed. But he said rifles are still needed in schools to protect students.
“An active shooter is an active shooter — you have to have superior fire power to protect the most important asset we have,”