There’s no question that the scene remains tense in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Mike Brown. As images of armored vehicles and police officers wearing night vision goggles continue to be splashed across our papers, television screens and computers, many have questioned not only the tactics of the police but the level of “militarization” on the streets. While Attorney General Eric Holder and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (D) have publicly raised the issue of whether rolling out military-style gear was an appropriate response, others have wondered about the practical considerations: “Where did all of that gear come from? And how did they get the money to pay for it?”
I’ll start by saying that this post isn’t intended to tackle those bigger questions about what’s happening in Ferguson: I’ll leave that to journalists on the ground. As a tax writer who has followed federal tax dollars for years, I can, however, offer the short answer to those questions about the military gear: a lot of that gear came from programs funded by you and me.
To be clear, there isn’t a straight line from federal tax dollars to local law enforcement. There are a number of federal programs available to state and local law enforcement for procuring equipment for free or discounted costs.
The program that has attracted the most attention of late is the 1033 program (it was originally called the 1208 program – creative, they’re not). Some of the kinds of high profile equipment that have made the news – night-vision goggles, helicopters and Humvees – are transferred to local law enforcement agencies under that program.
The history of the program dates back more than 20 years. In the early 1990s, as part of the “war on drugs,” the National Defense Authorization Actauthorized the transfer of surplus or excess military equipment to federal and state agencies. The original idea was to provide law enforcement with the same kinds of weapons and tools that were being used by drug lords and drug dealers: law enforcement found itself simply outgunned. By the end of the decade, the law was expanded in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 to allow all law enforcement agencies access to property for “bona fide law enforcement purposes.” Again, the preference for participation in the program was for counter-drug operations.
The dynamics of the program changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. With homeland security increasingly a concern around the country, the program expanded to include law enforcement agencies engaged in counter-terrorism measures.
Today, the Department of Defense reports that over 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies from all 50 states and the U.S. territories participate in the program (you can see if law enforcement agencies near you participate by using this interactive map from theNew York Times). More than $4 billion of equipment has been transferred to agencies around the country. In some instances, the request for military equipment requires the completion of a simple, one-page form (downloads as a pdf).
Oversight of the program is managed by the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), located at Defense Logistics Agency’s (DLA) Disposition Services Headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan. You see see more from LESO here:
Equipment available to law enforcement includes armored vehicles, highly mobile multi-wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), tactical vehicles (like tanks), helicopters, rifles, binoculars, bayonets and more. It’s not all high powered weapons and army vehicles, however: the program also makes office equipment such as file cabinets, copiers, and fax machines available to those agencies. The list also includes first aid equipment (like eye washes), containers and clothing available to agencies. You can check out the catalog of what’s available here.
In theory, the program prevents wastefulness because it allows federal equipment that was already tagged as “surplus” to be repurposed. Kind of the ultimate in recycling, right?
While the underlying idea is a good one, the program may actually encourage some kinds of waste by offering up the opportunity to snatch up gear that isn’t needed. It could be the case that law enforcement agencies that would normally budget for high dollar items rely on the 1033 program to fund their departments. Dollars that would have been earmarked for certain kinds of gear may be rerouted without much careful thought. There might not be a need to consider alternate ways of staffing or arming your police force when you can, instead, count on receiving surplus military gear. And maybe those resources directly influence law enforcement’s decision making instead of the other way around.
In some instances, there’s also evidence to suggest that repurposing vehicles is more expensive than destroying them. Earlier this year, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the coalition and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, told the DOD-Buzz, the Online Defense & Acquisition Journal that MRAP (Mine Resistant/Ambush Protected) vehicles – the same kind of vehicles reportedly used against protestors and journalists in Ferguson – cost just $10,000 each to destroy but $50,000 or more each to bring back to the U.S. The military generally tries to sell equipment to “friendly countries” first but then is tasked with figuring out what to do with the remainder: in March, U.S. forces in Afghanistan had 4,000 excess vehicles to get rid of, including 1,230 excess MRAP vehicles, “which originally cost about $1 million apiece.” The math on just those MRAP vehicles in Afghanistan works out to the military spending nearly $50 million more to save them than to destroy them. Of course, vehicles and equipment that aren’t sold or destroyed get brought home – and that’s how they end up in places like St. Louis County and other law enforcement agencies around the country.
Under the program, St. Louis County police have received “rifles, pistols, gun sights, night-vision goggles, night sights, an explosive ordnance robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees and three cargo trailers.” The Missouri Department of Public Safety currently touts the availability of the program on its website:
A small sample of the types of items issued in the past to participating agencies are aircraft (both fixed wing and rotary) and four-wheel drive vehicles (such as pickup trucks, blazers, ambulances and armored personnel carriers). The ambulances are used for mobile command vehicles and search warrant entry teams. The armored personnel carriers are used for S.W.A.T. teams along with victim an officer recovery. Ballistic helmets and vests are issued for officer safety. BDU clothing (including Nomex fire retardant), boots, wet weather and cold weather clothing, canteens, and web belts are some of the types of field gear items issued for marijuana eradication. Binoculars, radios, camcorders, and tv/vcr combinations are used for tactical and intelligence gathering operations. Information technology equipment such as desktop and laptop computers, printers, and servers have also been issued.
Not all of the military style equipment used in local law enforcement comes from the 1033 program. Sometimes, it’s donated from other agencies. In Ferguson, for example, they sport two Humvees donated by the Missouri National Guard. Most of the funding for the National Guard comes from the federal government.
Some law enforcement agencies may also benefit from other federal programs like those established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after 9/11. Between 2002 and 2011, DHS handed out $35 billion in grants to state and local police for weapons, vehicles and other military gear. Those grants, for example, allowed the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department to buy a BearCat, photographed patrolling the streets of Ferguson: those normally sell for up to $275,000.
Just ten years after the attacks on 9/11, more than $34 billion in federal grants had been handed out to help law enforcement agencies buy equipment ostensibly to fight terrorism. And it wasn’t only border towns and urban centers taking advantage: local governments snatching up these grants includeKeene, New Hampshire; Canyon County, Idaho; and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Overall spending is expected to keep going up with projections for homeland security related spending for state and local agencies reaching $19.2 billion in 2014. The rationale, of course, is counter-terrorism. Jim Massery, the government sales manager for Lenco told the Huffington Post, “I don’t think there’s any place in the country where you can say, ‘That isn’t a likely terrorist target.’”
Other federal monies are issued by Justice Department. Since 1999, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP), has disbursed $375 million in federal funds for the purchase of over one million bulletproof vests. They’ve also handed out funding for Less-than-Lethal (LTL) technology – including rubber bullets and tear gas – and providing other dollars through Justice Assistance Grants.
While it’s true that the majority of these dollars are focused on the war on drugs and counter-terrorism activities, that doesn’t mean that the use of the equipment is restricted to those areas. The decision to use that equipment for crowd control and other crime prevention is up to those at the helm of state and local law enforcement. That’s exactly why you’re seeing military-style equipment, including gas masks, AR-15s and camouflage gear, on the streets of Ferguson and in other neighborhoods in America.
That has caused many to question whether access to military-style equipment is a good thing. The question is even more pointed when you consider that many state and local authorities – especially those in relatively low-crime areas – might not have substantial training handling the equipment, or the crowds. That much was clear in Ferguson when local police appeared unable (or unwilling) to tell the difference between peaceful protesters and those in the crowd who were bent on causing trouble.
I don’t think anyone would suggest that our police officers don’t deserve protection in what can clearly be a dangerous job. And I don’t think anyone would suggest that we should ever put ourselves in a position where the bad guys out arm the good guys. But whether our police should have the same kinds of equipment in rural America as our soldiers have in Afghanistan is worth a discussion – and whether the expenditures to make it happen should come from federal dollars likewise deserves consideration.
That’s exactly what some Congressional officials want to work out. Last week, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) announced that a committee will discuss the 1033 program as part of the Defense Department’s budget. Sen. Levin conceded that the program might not have been used for its original purpose, saying, “We intended this equipment to keep police officers and their communities safe from heavily armed drug gangs and terrorist incidents. Before the defense authorization bill comes to the Senate floor, we will review this program to determine if equipment provided by the Defense Department is being used as intended.”