Crime & Justice

Militarized police? An FAQ on the Pentagon's surplus program

A rendering by the San Diego Unified school district of what an MRAP might look like after its tan military color is painted over.
A rendering by the San Diego Unified school district of what an MRAP might look like after its tan military color is painted over.
/San Diego Unified School District

The U.S. Department of Defense released fine-grain data in November on surplus military equipment it gave to local law enforcement agencies. The data can get complicated.

So here's a guide to understanding the acronyms contained in the data — and its limitations.

Q: What do the acronyms related to the 1033 program mean?

A: Here are the ones you'll see the most:

Q: Has the amount of military equipment acquired by local law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program increased over time? Has the type of equipment they receive changed?

A: The data released by the Defense Logistics Agency on Nov. 21 is a snapshot, not a historical record.

The agency tracks "non-controlled" items for one year, and the item is then removed from active inventory.

It tracks "controlled" items — things like rifles and combat vehicles, but also other equipment that you wouldn't think of as tactical (see next question) — that are currently at law enforcement agencies. Since the information is partial, we can't make historical comparisons.

For example, the data doesn't allow us to say whether the amount equipment acquired by an agency has increased over time.  We can only say when the equipment that is currently at an agency arrived there.

 Law enforcement agencies must track controlled property for as long as it's in their possession.

Q: Controlled, non-controlled: what do those terms mean? Does controlled mean the same thing as weapons?

A: Those are two different classifications for the 1033 equipment — but they're fuzzy. 

You can find the definition of controlled property in the California certification package for the 1033 program.

 Tonya Johnson, of the Defense Logistics Agency said aircraft, "tactical vehicles" and robots are examples of controlled items that the agency considers tactical. But that doesn't mean every "controlled" item is a tank or rifle.

"You cannot make that distinction because the tactical equipment definition can be subjective," she said.

Q: What's a demilitarization code?

A: You can go down that rabbit hole here and in these three volumes of the Defense Demilitarization Manual.

Q: Are the 1033 items brand new?

A: Not usually. According to a fact sheet provided to Congress on the 1033 program by Defense Logistics Agency director Mark Harnitchek — available in this ACLU report — about 36 percent of equipment is new. About 64 percent — nearly two-thirds — is used.

Q: Does the equipment arrive in good condition?

A: It varies. When the Glendora, Calif. Police Department received two Peacekeeper-style armored vehicles in 1997, the department ended up using one in dozens of SWAT operations and the other for parts.