The Pentagon gave nearly half a billion dollars of military gear to local law enforcement last year

The events in Ferguson, Missouri this week are an uncomfortable reminder of the militarization of America's small town law enforcement agencies. The photos coming out of the town--of heavily armed officers in full combat gear squaring off against unarmed protesters--look like images we're used to seeing from places like Gaza, Turkey, or Egypt, not from a midwestern suburb of 21,000 people.

One of the ways police departments have armed themselves in recent years is through the Defense Department's excess property program, known as the 1033 Program. It "permits the Secretary of Defense to transfer, without charge, excess U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) personal property (supplies and equipment) to state and local law enforcement agencies (LEAs)," according to the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center.

The 1033 program has transferred more than $4.3 billion in equipment since its inception in 1997. In 2013 alone it gave nearly half a billion dollars worth of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, according to the program's website.

The program provides things like office equipment, tents, generators, pick-up trucks and ATVs, according to a PowerPoint presentation on its website. But law enforcement agencies can also use it to obtain military aircraft, weapons (including grenade launchers), and heavily armored tactical vehicles. You can see an example of one of these vehicles below, pictured in Ferguson (although it's unclear if local law enforcement there received the vehicle through the DOD program).


Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

Law enforcement agencies can browse online to obtain small arms and other materials. Getting an armored personnel carrier is slightly more complicated, requiring the completion of a one-page request form in which you can indicate your preference for a vehicle that has either wheels or tracks like a tank. "Once ordered, arrangements for pick-up or delivery must be made within 14 days," according to the website.

Like many of our current criminal justice excesses, the 1033 program has its roots in the war on drugs. It arose from "Subtitle C--Counter-Drug Activities" in the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 1997. The act gives preference to "those applications indicating that the transferred property will be used in the counter-drug or counter-terrorism activities of the recipient agency."

Part of the thinking behind the 1033 program was that if law enforcement personnel were waging a drug war, they should be outfitted like warriors. Priority for tactical vehicle requests is still given to law enforcement agencies in "high intensity drug trafficking areas," which according to the DEA cover about 60 percent of the total U.S. population. Among other things, the program's FAQ page states that law enforcement agencies can use its four wheel drive vehicles to "haul away marijuana."

Taken at face value the program makes a certain degree of sense: military equipment that would otherwise be destroyed instead gets diverted to cash-strapped local law enforcement agencies. But in some cases, particularly with the heavy equipment, the program may actually be a money loser.

According to an interview with Marine General Joseph Dunford in DoDBuzz, an online defense journal, the heavily armored tactical vehicles known as MRAPs might cost about $10,000 each to destroy in the field in places like Afghanistan. But it costs up to $50,000 to bring each one back to the States.

Beyond financial considerations, there doesn't seem to be much wisdom in arming small town police agencies like military forces. The police chief of Keene, NH (pop. 23,000) famously justified the acquisition of an armored tactical vehicle to patrol the town's "Pumpkin Festival and other dangerous situations," according to The Economist.

The needs of an occupying military force are--or at least should be--distinct from those of a local law enforcement agency. Effective policing requires much more than overwhelming firepower. It entails, among other things, working with the local community to gain its trust. But it's difficult to do that when you're staring community members down from atop the gun turret of an armored vehicle, as St. Louis County police officers did last night in Ferguson.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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