This week, the Midwestern town of Ferguson, Mo., was transformed into a war zone--occupied by heavily armed police officers wearing Kevlar helmets, driving armored trucks and spraying tear gas at protestors and journalists.
Just last night, police shot dozens of people with rubber bullets and arrested two reporters who were demanding answers from city officials surrounding the death of an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer last Saturday.
Images emerging from the St. Louis suburb have alarmed the rest of the country. Most people don’t expect to see Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) intended for the deserts of Afghanistan driving down the same roads normally occupied by school busses and minivans. “We rolled lighter than that in Afghanistan,” Paul Szoldra, a Marine veteran-turned-journalist noted in Business Insider.
But a little-known provision in the Pentagon’s budget provides towns like Ferguson and others with the very equipment that transforms their local police departments into battle-ready armed forces.
Tucked away in the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress each year is the 1033 Program, formerly known as Section 1208, which authorizes the Secretary of Defense to transfer the Pentagon’s leftovers--like tanks and M-16s used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—to state and local police departments. The program was first intended to help protect police officers involved in the war on drugs, but it was later ramped up in the wake of September 11 to aid in counter terrorism and homeland security efforts.
So far, the federal government has distributed at least $4.3 billion in equipment—like grenade launchers and armed vehicles to local police, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2012 alone, the government transferred a record $546 million in equipment--all at very little cost to the departments themselves.
Indeed, police departments only need to pay for the shipment of the equipment, the rest is usually covered by the federal government.
An earlier investigation by the Daily Beast and the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the government had provided local police departments with $34 billion in federal grants to stockpile such equipment in the name of homeland security since September 11. In 2011 alone, the Department of Homeland Security awarded $2 billion to local police departments and President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contributed another $500 million to that pool.
To be sure, the Defense Department doesn’t just give these departments the surplus equipment. The local departments have to request it, and the equipment that goes unclaimed gets destroyed.
So the thinking is, why not take something at little cost, instead of spending state or city money on other equipment later? And officers say the public understands that.
“When you explain that you’re preparing for something that may never happen, they get it,” a police captain in northwest Missouri, Capt. Tiger Parsons told The New York Times, after his small town received an MRAP from the Pentagon.
Critics of the program, however, say it lacks transparency and oversight.
An investigation by the Associated Press last year found that in some instances, the government’s management over the program was shaky at best. An official from the Defense Logistics Agency assured reporters that the agency performs “sanity checks” on requests to make sure “we're not giving Barney Fife an attack helicopter," Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek told The AP. "If you want a helicopter, you've got to have significantly more justification for it than if you want a (personal computer) that's 8 years old."
Still, the agency struggles to determine whether the right equipment is getting to the correct department.
An Alabama police department, for example, received a $1.5 million piece of surveillance equipment for a helicopter it doesn’t have, instead of the night vision goggles it requested. In another instance, a sheriff in Illinois was suspended for allegedly lending government-issued M-14 rifles to his friends. Because of these problems, the DOD eventually had to suspend the transfer of firearms to police officers in 2012.
Other concerns stem around the cost effectiveness of the program. The AP’s same investigation found that of the more than $4 billion worth of equipment distributed to law enforcement since 1990, the majority had gone to rural communities with tiny police departments and very little crime. Most of the equipment was just sitting in storage, the reporters found.
Earlier this summer, a New York Times story raised similar concerns--reporting that a small-town police department in Wisconsin had received an MRAP through the program, only to sit in storage.
The American Civil Liberties Union, launched a massive investigation into the program last year, filing at least 177 public record requests with local police departments across the country.
“Federal funding in the billions of dollars has allowed state and local police departments to gain access to weapons and tactics created for overseas combat theaters — and yet very little is known about exactly how many police departments have military weapons and training, how militarized the police have become, and how extensively federal money is incentivizing this trend,” the ACLU said in a statement. “It’s time to understand the true scope of the militarization of policing in America and the impact it is having in our neighborhoods."
Police militarization in Ferguson has been criticized by federal lawmakers. On Thursday, Kentucky Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul penned an Op-Ed in Time Magazine denouncing the program.
“Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement,” Paul wrote.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is expected to relieve the St. Louis County Law Enforcement from Ferguson today.
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