Program that funnels surplus military equipment to local cops under scrutiny again

Rand Corp.

If you’ve ever wondered how your local police department ended up with military HUMVEES, visit The Marshall Project. There, you can click on your community and see if has been was the recipient of a Pentagon surplus program known as “1033.”  Since the late 1990s — when signed into law under the Clinton administration as part of the part of the 1997 Defense Authorization Act–  the U.S military has given away $7 billion worth of gear to local cops and other federal agencies — $293 million just last year.

Unfortunately, the Marshall Project data on your town isn’t very current — the latest information is from 2015, made available then by the Pentagon after the Ferguson, Missouri protests in 2014. Still, it’s worth browsing to understand how far and wide old military equipment has been spread among America’s local police forces.  (More current, but more limited, data is available at the public information section of the Defense Department’s Law Enforcement Support Office.  You’ll have to download and browse a spreadsheet yourself).

The gear hasn’t always been distributed with great care. In 2017, investigators from the Government Accountability Office created a fake law enforcement agency and were able to obtain $1.2 million worth of rifles, night-vision goggles, and other gear.

It’s not always been used with great care, either. In 2018, Missouri’s Randolph County sheriff’s office was suspended from the program because it lost track of several 1033 items, an audit found.

“The missing items are 33 AR-15 magazines, five EoTech holographic sights and a telescope straight scope,” the Columbia Tribune reported.

And earlier this year, the entire state of Tennessee was suspended from the program for 60 days because local agencies failed to report lost guns, according to Nashville’s Newschannel 5. That story also mentions that back in 2014, rural McMinn County “had received 161 army rifles and pistols, including 71 M16 assault rifles, even though it only had 31 officers and investigators.”

The 1033 program is under scrutiny now, as agencies around the nation roll out their army-like forces against protestors. In a rare moment of bipartisanship — some Republicans and Democrats are calling for reform of the military-equipment transfers. We’ve seen this play before: after Ferguson, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the Stop Militarizing Our Law Enforcement Act of 2015.

“As a nation, we were shocked by images of police responding to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, outfitted as if going to war,” Schatz said at the time.  “As we rebuild the trust between communities and the police, we have to address the role that the federal government has played in supplying law enforcement with battlefield equipment. Our bill would ban the transfer of certain equipment and put safeguards in place to ensure that federal funds are used appropriately.”

“Not surprisingly, big government in Washington has created an incentivized system in which local law enforcement is provided mass amounts of equipment to build up forces that resemble small armies,” Paul said. “By putting these restrictions on the current transfer programs, we can eliminate the wasteful spending these programs have created and stop the militarization of our police forces.”

Then-President Obama added restrictions to the program in 2015.  The Trump administration changed those restrictions in 2017.

Why does this matter now? There’s a connection between the proliferation of military equipment and the use of deadly force, some research has found. That should be unsurprising.

“Militarization makes every problem — even a car of teenagers driving away from a party — look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer,” Ryan Welch and Jack Mewhirter wrote in the Washington Post back in 2017. Their study showed that police were even more likely to use deadly force among pets in places where military equipment was made available. 

Militarization can also thwart de-escalation efforts, writes Tom Nolan, a retired Boston cop and now a sociology professor and police tactics researcher.

“What is clear from the latest round of protest and response, is that despite efforts to promote de-escalation as a policy, police culture appears to be stuck in an “us vs. them” mentality,” he writes for 

Applications for available equipment can be viewed by anyone at the Defense Logistics Agency’s website. Under “high visibility vehicles” are sections labeled “tactical vehicles,” “small arms” and “aircraft.”

The Marshall Project story said several local agencies had resisted Freedom of Information Act requests before the data was made available by the Pentagon.  The (2015) data shows that:

  • A police in Winthrop Harbor, Ill., a village of 6,700 along the shore of Lake Michigan, has received 10 helicopters, one mine-resistant armored vehicle and two Humvees, and other equipment, worth more than $6.5 million.
  • The parks division of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources was given 20 M-16 rifles, while the fish and wildlife enforcement division obtained another 20 M-16s, plus eight M-14 rifles and ten .45-caliber automatic pistols

For more information, consider reading this detailed analysis of the current state of the program was written by the Rand Corporation in 2018. It points out that while much of the surplus equipment is non-controversial — such as blankets — so-called “controlled” items create both a real and a perceptual risk for police departments and the military.  For a good summary of studies around militarization and the use of force, read this story.



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About Bob Sullivan 1638 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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