Sometimes the outrage outweighs the offense

The 1033 program contributes only a fraction of the federal resources that result in what some believe are overly militarized local police departments.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting last summer, pictures of heavily armed police running on television caused some viewers to conclude, local police have been “militarized.” Police in several tense cities certainly didn’t look like your average Barney Fife with the .38 he rarely drew.

The administration, responding to objections to the seeming over-equipping of police, focused on the so-called 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency distributes to local police — about 8,000 organizations — surplus Defense Department equipment and supplies. Eventually, the administration barely touched the program, quietly letting it live. Anyhow, it was congressionally mandated, the “1033” referring to the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that created the program in 1997. In fact, the 1033 program has predecessors going back to World War II.

It did request, via an executive order, the return of items it deemed prohibited. According to Carlos Torres, the branch chief for the DLA’s Law Enforcement Support Office, this amounts to exactly:

  • 126 tracked assault vehicles
  • 138 grenade launchers
  • 1,820 bayonets

Torres said the vehicles were mostly non-running, and DoD will take them back mainly for target practice. The fact is, much of the materiel going to local cops doesn’t “militarize” them. The locals get cold weather clothing, sleeping bags, flashlights, small arms, ammunition, office equipment and a host of other bread-and-butter items that stretch their budgets. LESO said only 5 percent of what it doles out are weapons. Sometimes really big items, like airplanes and helicopters, get surplussed to local law enforcement. My guess is aircraft go to departments that have the financial, managerial and technical depth to operate them in the first place, but maybe can’t afford the hardware.

True, it’s hard to see a situation where a local or state police officer would need, or even want to use, a bayonet. If you’re that close to a perp, wouldn’t the ubiquitous Taser be less bloody and more humane? Torres told me the grenade launchers, when they were used, fired teargas bombs, not classic explosives.

The 1033 program has had its share of critics, including the Government Accountability Office,  mainly for waste and poor accounting. But it’s hard to see how it’s caused the militarization of local police. In fact, if you see one of those Winnebago-type mobile command units bristling with antennae, it’s likely the result of a Homeland Security Grant. Since its inception, the 1033 program has transferred about $5 billion (in original acquisition costs) worth of gear to local law enforcement. But the White House notes that between 2009 and 2014, only, the federal government sent $18 billion worth of support for state and local law enforcement.

In the same report, the White House points out that 460,000 pieces of “controlled” property such as high-powered rifles. Yet after the highly-visible vow to review the program, it ended up seeking return of only 2,084 pieces.  If local police are too militaristic, it’s a stretch to say it’s because of the 1033 program.

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More commentary from Tom Temin