Legislators in Washington are calling on limits to a Pentagon program providing surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies in California and across the country after images of police outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in suburban St. Louis ignited public outcry.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., says he plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to curb what has been widely seen as an increasing militarization of police agencies across the country. He plans to limit the kinds of equipment doled out to local agencies. The issue became more prominent this week as police responding to protesters angry about the weekend shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, wore riot gear and deployed tear gas and armored vehicles, some of which were obtained through the surplus program.
On Thursday, about 500 people gathered in Los Angeles's Leimert Park, joining similar rallies in more than 90 cities as part of Thursday's National Moment of Silence protest Brown's death.
"Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s," Johnson said Thursday, citing a 24-year-old program that lets local police agencies acquire surplus military equipment ranging from blankets and bayonets to tanks. "Militarizing America's Main Streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent."
Johnson's bill would limit the kinds of military equipment that can be transferred to local law enforcement agencies, and prohibit transfer of automatic weapons, tactical or armored vehicles, drones, aircraft or crowd-suppression devices like flash-bang or stun grenades. The bill would also require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.
Southern California's take
There is no comprehensive public database detailing equipment distributed through what is commonly known as the 1033 program, based on the section number in the biannual Department of Defense budget bill. KPCC has filed public records requests with both the Defense Logistics Agency in Washington and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services — both of which administer parts of the program — seeking inventories of equipment that California law enforcement agencies have through the program.
According to a New York Times analysis released Friday, law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles County have received 3,408 assault rifles, 15 helicopters, three mine-resistant vehicles and three grenade launchers between 1990 and 2006.
A 2012 report by California Watch's G.W. Schulz and Andrew Becker found California police accumulated more equipment during 2011 through the 1033 program than in any other year in the equipment-transfer program's two-decade history. Data made available by California Watch lists the quantity, value and categories of equipment acquired by Southern California law enforcement agencies between 1991 and April 2011.
M16 rifles, helicopters, microwaves, survival kits, workout equipment, bayonet knives, ammunition cans and more – the LA sheriff’s office snaps up an average of $4 million to $5 million in surplus military equipment annually.
The equipment sent to Southern California gives a picture of the range of supplies:
- The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department received approval between January and April of 2011 to acquire equipment originally valued at $433,691, ranging from a $76,574 hypothermia blanket to an $18 pair of bandage scissors.
- The Los Angeles Police Department received approval between January and April of 2011 to take possession equipment originally valued at $54,510, including a $1,500 laser printer and a $2,000 refrigerator.
- The Compton Police Department received approval between 1991 and April 2011 to acquire equipment originally valued at $4,440,315, consisting mostly of helicopter and airplane parts.
- The Los Angeles Port Police in 2006 received approval for the transfer of a grenade launcher.
- The Montebello received in 2000 approval for the transfer of an armored truck equipment originally valued at $65,070.
- The Glendora Police Department received approval to take possession of three armored vehicles originally valued at $195,210.
Glendora Police Capt. Joe Ward confirmed his department received two Peacekeeper-style armored vehicles. One arrived operational, while ended up being used for parts.
"The equipment we got back in 1997 — the Peacekeeper — has been very useful," Ward said. "Throughout this time it's one of the vehicles we use on our regional SWAT team. And in that time, since the regional SWAT team came into existence, we've probably had about 70 operations. And we've never had a significant use of force or anything. Never been involved in a shooting of any kind, other than a few times shooting rubber bullets in a SWAT team deployment.
Ward said the department also received about 15 M-16 rifles.
"When we got these rifles, they weren't really suitable for law enforcement use, so we never used them, we just held on to them since 1997," he said.
The 1033 program
An Associated Press investigation last year found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed by the Defense Logistics Agency, the federal government's combat logistics support agency, through the 1033 program since 1990 went to police and sheriff's departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
The surplus disposal program has its roots in the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets the federal budget for the Department of Defense every two years. In the 1996 version of that budget, Congress created Section 1033 that allowed "all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission."
In California, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services administers the 1033 program and maintains equipment records. To participate each local law enforcement agency is required to apply for certification each year — or when there's a change in leadership. As part of that annual certification process, local law enforcement agencies provide the state with an inventory of all firearms, vehicles and equipment they have acquired through the program.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, defended the program as useful because "it allows for the reuse of military equipment that otherwise would be disposed of."
Kirby declined to speculate whether events in Missouri had given the Pentagon reason to reconsider the program.
"It is up to law enforcement agencies to speak to how and what they gain through this system," he said.
Attorney General Eric Holder said was concerned that use of military equipment by police in Ferguson was sending a "conflicting message."
The response by law enforcement to protests "must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them," Holder said. The Justice Department and FBI are investigating Brown's death by a police officer identified by Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson on Friday as Darren Wilson.
Days of protests on the Ferguson streets calmed Thursday night after the state Highway Patrol took over security from county police and presented a friendlier face, walking alongside marchers and even hugging some protesters.
This story has been updated to clarify value of equipment refers to the original purchase price when the item entered the Department of Defense supply chain.