Ferguson: How Pentagon’s '1033 program' helped militarize small-town police (+video)

The Pentagon’s ‘1033 program’ has provided billions of dollars in military equipment to law enforcement agencies across the country. Critics say this militarization of local police needs to change.

By , Staff writer

The images out of Ferguson, Mo., population 21,000, have been stark: heavily armed officers in combat gear, some atop armored vehicles, firing rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters.

The rioting this week over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager has subsided, after the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over security operations. But public focus remains on why the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death spiraled into mayhem, and on how it could have been prevented.

Exhibit A is a phenomenon widely criticized across the political spectrum, from the Heritage Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union: the militarization of policing in America. A key element of that trend is the Pentagon’s “1033 program,” which allows police forces to acquire excess military equipment.

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Here’s an explanation of how the program works, and a proposal to change it.

What is the 1033 program?

The Department of Defense launched the “1033 program” in 1997 as a way to let state and local law enforcement stock up on excess US military equipment, free of charge. Among the items available are vehicles (land, air, and sea), weapons, computer equipment, fingerprint equipment, and night-vision equipment.

“If your law enforcement agency chooses to participate, it may become one of the more than 8,000 participating agencies to increase its capabilities, expand its patrol coverage, reduce response times, and save the American taxpayer’s investment,” the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office says on its website.

What’s behind creation of 1033?

The program was originally launched to aid communities in the “war on drugs.” After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, local law enforcement could also receive grants from the new Department of Homeland Security to help communities defend against terrorist threats.

What’s the value of the equipment?

Since the program’s inception, DOD has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property to state and local law enforcement. Last year alone, almost $450 million worth of equipment was transferred.

What has Ferguson received from 1033?

Ferguson police last October received “nontactical” equipment via the 1033 program, including two unarmored Humvees, a trailer, and a generator, according to a Pentagon official speaking to ABC News.

The armored vehicle seen in many images out of Ferguson on Wednesday was not a military vehicle and did not come from DOD, the official told ABC. 

“There’s no information yet about what other tactical equipment the Ferguson Police Department may have received, the official said, but a complete list of the equipment provided to St. Louis County by the DOD shows the types of weapons being distributed: six .45-caliber pistols, 12 rifles, two sight reflexes, one explosive ordnance disposal robot, one helicopter, seven utility trucks, three trailers, one motorized cart, one pair of elbow pads, one pair of knee pads, one industrial strength face shield, two night-vision viewers, and computers,” ABC reports.

Ferguson is located in St. Louis County.

What have other communities received from 1033?

Last October, Oxford County in rural western Maine agreed to take a “bulletproof, explosive-resistant armored personnel carrier, courtesy of the US military,” according to the Bangor Daily News.

Six other law enforcement agencies in Maine were also set to receive Navstar Defense MaxxPro Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicles. 

“The Western Foothills of the State of Maine, primarily the Oxford County area as well as the area surrounding Oxford County, currently face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities,” Oxford County Sheriff George Cayer said in a six-page memo cited by the newspaper.

Last August, police in Lewiston, Me., had a gathering in a park for National Night Out to show residents the department’s newest acquisitions: a robot and an armor personnel carrier.

A police sergeant said the new vehicle would be useful in rescue and hazardous-materials situations, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported.

Isn’t it smart to recycle?

 “Taken at face value the program makes a certain degree of sense,” writes Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post. “Military equipment that would otherwise be destroyed instead gets diverted to cash-strapped local law enforcement agencies.”

But in some cases, the program may be a money loser. Heavily armored tactical vehicles known as MRAPs cost about $10,000 each to destroy where they are – say, Afghanistan – but $50,000 to transport to the US, the Post reports.

How do members of Congress want to change the 1033 program?

Rep. Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia plans to introduce legislation changing 1033 in September, when Congress gets back from recess. For starters, he wants to decouple the program from the war on drugs, which is in flux.

Congressman Johnson would also limit the transfers of certain types of military equipment that he believes are not appropriate for local law enforcement, such as armored vehicles and large-caliber weapons.

“It's not yet clear how much support Johnson's proposal will receive,” writes Philip Bump in the Washington Post. “If it passes, however, it could mean a gradual scaling back of military-grade equipment owned – and therefore used – by local police forces.”

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