How and why local police departments get military surplus equipment

St. Louis County Police tactical officers fire tear gas on West Florissant Road on Monday, August 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.


By JON HARPER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 24, 2014

WASHINGTON — After seeing TV footage of the police in Ferguson, Mo., deploying Humvees and brandishing assault rifles in the face of protesters, some Americans are questioning whether local law enforcement agencies should be allowed to acquire military equipment from the Pentagon. A congressional review has been scheduled, with the president’s backing.

But few understand how the Defense Department’s 1033 Program actually works. Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had to ask his staffers this week to explain it to him.

The ongoing controversy raises important questions: Why does the program exist? Why do many police officers believe they need military-grade equipment? And what safeguards are in place to ensure that weapons and vehicles designed for combat zones are used responsibly in towns like Ferguson?

How it came to be

The 1033 Program was an invention of Congress, not the Pentagon. It came into being through the 1990-1991 National Defense Authorization Act, and the program’s original scope was much narrower than it is today. As the federal government’s “war on drugs” escalated, the 1990-1991 NDAA authorized the transfer of excess DOD property to federal and state agencies for use in counterdrug activities. A few years later, the program was broadened considerably to include materiel that could be used for “the execution of law enforcement activities,” to include counterdrug and counterterrorism missions, according to DOD.

The theory behind the initiative was that the military’s unneeded equipment might as well be put to good use, rather than be destroyed or warehoused.

Pentagon officials chafing at recent criticism of the program are quick to point out that DOD is simply following orders from lawmakers.

“Congress is telling us to do this ... Congress has to be the one to change it,” a defense official told Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss the transfer program.

“We do not legislate,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday at a press conference in response to a reporter’s question. “We don’t push equipment on anybody ...” Following the uproar over events in Ferguson, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would launch a review of 1033. President Barack Obama has suggested that would be wise.

“I think it’s probably useful for us to review,” Obama said at a White House press conference Monday. “I think that there will be some bipartisan interest in re-examining some of those programs.”

On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced that she would lead a Senate hearing next month to examine the program.

The Pentagon is noncommittal about whether it will conduct its own probe.

“Secretary Hagel has not ordered a review of this program. He’s simply asked for some more information so that he can have a more informed opinion about it,” Kirby told reporters.

In the meantime, the program continues.

Humvees and TVs

More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies around the country participate in 1033. Since the program’s inception, the Pentagon has transferred property worth $5.1 billion. Last year, half a billion dollars’ worth of gear was transferred, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the transfers.

Equipment is free, but law enforcement agencies must pay maintenance and transportation costs.

Some of the items — Humvees, mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, aircraft (rotary and fixed wing), boats, sniper scopes and M-16s — raise eyebrows.

But only about 5 percent of the equipment is weapons, and fewer than 1 percent is tactical vehicles, according to the defense official.

Much of the gear is non-military items, such as office equipment, blankets and sleeping bags, computers, digital cameras and video recorders, binoculars, flashlights, extreme weather clothing, repair tools, first-aid supplies and TVs.

The official said all tactical vehicles are “stripped down” before they are given to law enforcement, and are without weapons.

Transferred aircraft is also unarmed and intended to give police greater observation capabilities, according to the official.

Just because the Pentagon doesn’t need a particular item doesn’t mean law enforcement agencies can use it. The logistics agency has to approve every type of item that can be transferred.

“No, you can’t have a damn tank,” the official said.

What is it good for?

Some wonder why a police force would need weapons and vehicles designed for war zones.

Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, an advocacy group in Alexandria, Va., suggested that the level of violence on American streets sometimes justifies law enforcement’s use of military-grade gear.

Johnson cited the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing as an example.

“You have armed and dangerous suspects who have already detonated two bombs and killed people and maimed people, and now you’ve got police tracking them down and chasing them and they’re actually getting bombs thrown at them and being shot at and so forth,” he said. “Unfortunately in America today ... it’s so violent against the police that they really do need that level of protection.”

It’s also about image in how the gear is presented and used, he said. “An MRAP, I think, obviously by its very form and appearance, is something that could be intimidating to people who aren’t used to being around it.”

Johnson said what came to be known as the North Hollywood shootout in 1997 — in which heavily armed and armored bank robbers slugged it out with the LAPD for hours — is one example of law enforcement officials needing powerful rifles to subdue criminals.

“The bad guys had military-grade body armor … They were able to keep going and shoot and do damage” and the police officers’ regular duty weapons “weren’t doing anything,” he said.

The need for police in large cities to have heavy-duty weapons and equipment that could be used in a major crisis seems more reasonable to some than the acquisition of MRAPs and assault rifles by a number of small-town law enforcement agencies.

But Johnson said that the size of the town being policed isn’t necessarily the right metric.

“It’s more a function of the level of criminal activity and the potential violence associated with it than the population of the city.” For example, he said, a very rural area could have a severe methamphetamine problem, which often is accompanied by violence. “You can have booby traps, you can have explosives, you can have people who are willing to very violently defend their [meth] lab or their [marijuana] growing area and so forth … It doesn’t mean you have to deploy it all the time. But I think it’s a good tool to have in the toolbox.”

Military vehicles can also be useful for search-and-rescue missions.

“When there’s a natural disaster … you [may] need vehicles like a Humvee to go through high water to get to an area that normally you wouldn’t get to,” Johnson said.

Still, he acknowledged that some police forces get military surplus they don’t need or won’t use responsibly.

“Admittedly, there’s going to be agencies out there where people are taking gear, agencies are obtaining equipment because it’s free and … it’d be neat to have,” he said. Although NAPO supports 1033, “we recognize that there’s particular instances where there may be legitimate concerns about the use of a particular item by a particular department.”

Who’s responsible?

The Defense Logistics Agency has the final authority to determine what excess military property is suitable for use in law enforcement activities.

But 1033 is primarily run by state program coordinators, which initially approve or deny local law enforcement requests for military gear.

“There is some vetting at our level,” the defense official said, “but it’s pretty minimal.”

The logistics agency generally approves requests “as long as there’s nothing crazy about it,” such as a request for attack vehicles, according to the official.

The agency does on-site inspections to make sure police forces are abiding by regulations, such as maintaining proper inventory records.

Alabama and North Carolina have been suspended from the program, as have more than 100 local law enforcement agencies, for failing to comply with Pentagon regulations governing the possession of the gear, according to DOD officials.

If suspended agencies fail to correct the problems that have been identified, they can be permanently barred from participating in 1033 and their military equipment will be repossessed.

The Pentagon says it’s not responsible for training police to use their military gear, nor are they responsible for how local law enforcement officials use what they’ve been given.

“It still is up to local law enforcement to determine how and when and where and under what circumstances they use excess military equipment,” Kirby told reporters. “We don’t take a position on the way the equipment is being used.”

Twitter: @JHarperStripes

A protestor is arrested on W. Florissant Avenue during a clash with police on Monday, August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.