(Note: This post was updated on Sept. 17 and Sept. 19 to reflect a review of data from more states and comment from several institutions. All five of the grenade launchers identified earlier this week are in the process of being disposed of or returned.)
The Defense Department program credited with helping to militarize local police departments has also facilitated the transfer of hundreds of pieces of equipment and weapons to school, college and university police, according to a Washington Post review.
Law enforcement agencies affiliated with at least 120 educational institutions have received gear through the program, according to the review of data from more than 30 states. The items received include at least five grenade launchers, hundreds of rifles and eight mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles—hulking machines designed to withstand the kind of roadside attacks seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In some cases, the equipment has been altered and its use limited to a narrow list of severe circumstances, such as campus shootings and natural disasters. But the practice of transferring weapons, particularly to schools, is drawing criticism for the tone it sets.
“This isn’t just about the weapons, it’s also about inserting these weapons in school climates that are already fraught with tension and hostility between students of color and school police,” says Janel A. George, education policy counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It’s about inserting that and exacerbating those tensions.”
In a Monday letter to the head of the agency that administers the program, Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and nearly two dozen other groups focused on juvenile issues called on the federal government to stop the transfer of weapons to school police through the 1033 program and provide a comprehensive accounting of all equipment provided to school districts nationwide.
The 1033 Program — named for the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that created it — allows the Defense Department to transfer equipment it no longer needs to local law enforcement agencies, with preference given to those that want to use it in counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities. Since the inception of a precursor program in the early 1990s, more than $5.1 billion of equipment has been transferred to local law enforcement.
Though the Ferguson police did not benefit greatly from the program, their response to protests, riots and looting after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown last month sparked a national discussion about the militarization of local police forces, prompting a presidential review and Senate hearing.
Those early criticisms were largely focused on equipment transferred to local law enforcement, but agencies affiliated with educational institutions have greatly benefitted from the 1033 program too.
More than 120 such agencies have received equipment of some kind through the program, with more than a dozen schools, 30 colleges, and 40 universities having received weapons, according to The Washington Post review of data. Those transfers include nearly 900 M14s, M16s and other rifles, and at least 190 pistols and 41 shotguns. In some instances, institutions have or are in the process of transferring such weapons away.
Most of the data in the review were provided directly to The Post by state officials, though some states declined to share the information. Data for nine states in the review were obtained by MuckRock, a collaborative news site dedicated to sharing government documents online. The data varied greatly by state, but most provided information through recent months. Because the review is not comprehensive, all counts in this article represent minimums.
The program transfers more than weapons, however. School-affiliated law enforcement agencies have received dozens of laptops and computers, tools, apparel, vehicles and other supplies.
In its letter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund describes the scope of the 1033 Program’s transfers to public schools as difficult to determine, yet “alarming” based on local reports. Indeed, data supplied by the federal government is not specific enough to identify school agencies, and each state has a different process for obtaining more detailed records.
The Los Angeles School Police Department is among the biggest public-school beneficiaries of the program, having received 61 M16 rifles, three grenade launchers and one MRAP, according to state data. After reports of the transfers surfaced earlier this month, Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman and Superintendent John E. Deasy announced they would return the grenade launchers. The remaining equipment was deemed “life-saving” and would remain with the department, they said.
The San Diego Unified Schools police also acquired an MRAP — intended to be used as a rescue vehicle — sparking a recent controversy and leading one board trustee to deride the acquisition by the school police as a “misguided priority.”
Florida’s Pinellas County Schools Police Department has received 22 M16s in recent weeks and is developing a plan for training officers and securing the equipment, says Pinellas County schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra.
“Our hope is that our officers never need to use this equipment,” she says, noting the firearms are intended for emergency use.
While many of the school-affiliated agencies receiving weapons represent large districts — Pinellas County Schools educate more than 100,000 students — some smaller districts have participated in the program as well.
Texas’s Aledo Independent School District, home to roughly 5,000 students, received four M16s and one M14 — all unused — during the 2011 to 2012 school year, but the district quickly decided it had no need for them, says Derek Citty, who became Aledo’s superintendent last summer.
“Philosophically, they just didn’t work with what we were trying to do,” Citty said. Aside from one weapon being tested at a firing range, the firearms have never been used by the school police and the district has offered them, through the program, to any other agency that wants them.
“We’re waiting for somebody else to come and get them,” Citty said.
Nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies from the more than 30 states reviewed were affiliated with schools, but roughly 100 were university- or college-affiliated, and officials with several institutions defended the program and their use of the equipment.
In addition to the L.A. school police, Mississippi’s Hinds Community College and the University of Central Florida also received grenade launchers, according to state-provided data. Hinds said in a Thursday statement that it would dispose of the grenade launcher and two M16’s through legal means once its board of trustees signed off and a UCF spokeswoman said on Friday that the school initiated the process of ridding itself of the grenade launcher more than a year ago. Both colleges say the equipment was never used (except for a UCF training operation) and both said the equipment was intended to be used to fire tear gas. UCF will hold onto nearly two dozen M16’s it has received.
“Our patrol officers keep the rifles in their vehicles as an emergency precaution,” Binette says. “During last year’s incident in Tower 1, the former student had three guns and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, vastly more ammo than the three officers who responded to the scene with rifles had.”
Police departments at five universities and one college have also received MRAPs, typically valued at $733,000, but several say they have significantly modified the vehicles to be used in emergency situations and only requested them after long, careful deliberation.
“We spent about 18 months from 2012 to 2013 looking at the issue of armed intruders and active shooters on campuses,” says Michael Heidingsfield, director of the University of Texas System Police, which he says provides daily services to more than 300,000 people.
The UT system has not only received an MRAP, but also M16s, two humvees and rifle sights. The humvees have been deployed twice, in response to a kidnapping investigation where a drug cartel was believed to be involved and following up on the arrest of an individual who threatened to explode an improvised explosive device, he said.
Use of the MRAP is restricted to a single purpose: bringing emergency responders to the scene of an active shooting and getting victims away.
“What we have here is really an armored container on wheels, it has no weapons associated with it whatsoever, it has our graphics on the side,” said Heidingsfield, noting that it also is labeled as an emergency rescue vehicle. By policy, the vehicle is banned from use for public demonstrations, he added.
Officials at the Ohio State University and New Mexico State University police departments said they plan to use their MRAPs in similar ways.
“What we wanted to do is be able to get a medical response into a hot zone before it’s secure, so we can start rescuing people,” says New Mexico State University Chief of Police Stephen Lopez. The MRAP’s seats have been replaced with stretcher carriers, he said. “It’s not armed at all.”
Officials defend the programs, saying they provide cash-strapped agencies with needed equipment and have been put to limited use.
“The question that communities need to ask is how are their police agencies going to use this equipment and if there’s been a deliberative, thoughtful, rational process,” says Texas’ Heidingsfield. “… I think that’s where the judgment should be made, not simply the fact that the agency has received a certain piece of equipment.”