This piece was reported and written by Shawn Musgrave of MuckRock and Tom Meagher and Gabriel Dance for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice. Subscribe to its newsletter, or like it on Facebook. Follow MuckRock on Twitter and Facebook.
You may have heard that the image-conscious Los Angeles Unified School District chose to return the grenade launchers it received from the Defense Department’s surplus equipment program. You probably have not heard about some of the more obscure beneficiaries of the Pentagon giveaway:
- Police in Johnston, R.I., with a population less than 29,000, acquired two bomb disposal robots, 10 tactical trucks, 35 assault rifles, more than 100 infrared gun sights and two pairs of footwear designed to protect against explosive mines. The Johnson police department has 67 sworn officers.
- The parks division of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources was given 20 M-16 rifles, while the fish and wildlife enforcement division obtained another 20 M-16s, plus eight M-14 rifles and ten .45-caliber automatic pistols.
- Campus police at the University of Louisiana, Monroe, received 12 M-16s to help protect the 8,811 students there (or perhaps to keep them in line).
- The warden service of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife received a small aircraft, 96 night vision goggles, 67 gun sights and seven M-14 rifles.
For more than 20 years, the Pentagon program that distributes surplus weapons, aircraft and vehicles to police departments nationwide received little attention or scrutiny. Defense Department officials closely guarded the details of which agencies across the country received which items.
Then, events in Ferguson propelled the 1033 program, as the surplus distribution is called, into the public eye.
Flooded with calls for greater transparency, in late November, the Pentagon quietly released data that details the tactical equipment it tracks through the program, and for the first time identified the agencies that received items.
The program has doled out $5 billion in equipment since 1990. Most of it was general office and maintenance equipment – shovels, copiers, computers – but the Pentagon largesse included tactical military equipment worth more than $1.4 billion, disseminated in 203,000 transfers to about 7,500 agencies. Even after Ferguson, the program continues to chug along, transferring $28 million in tactical equipment in the past three months.
Value of Tactical Items Distributed by Department of Defense 1033 Program
SOURCE: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, DEFENSE LOGISTICS AGENCY, DISPOSITION SERVICES
The program came under scrutiny earlier this year due to reporting by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. The controversy intensified in August, after news coverage of protests in Ferguson flashed images around the world of heavily armed and armored police facing off with protesters. Police in Ferguson and St. Louis County had received tactical equipment through the 1033 program, including helicopters and trucks.
As recently as October, the department’s Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the equipment distribution effort, rejected Freedom of Information Act requests for a detailed accounting of what equipment has been given to whom. The agency provided only county-by-county information about the donations. Then, on Nov. 21, the Pentagon shifted course, posting the full details of the program with no announcement.
Few critics have taken issue with the recycling of general equipment, but many have raised concerns about local police agencies, including campus police, being armed with tactical equipment intended for combat on foreign soil.
We have created a tool that will allow you to quickly check the 1033 transfers to your local police or game warden. See below.
Here are a few items that caught our eye.
Municipal police and county sheriffs’ departments comprise the majority of the agencies that receive equipment from the 1033 program, but they’re not the only ones. At least 17 school districts have been given hundreds of items.
In Los Angeles, for instance, the school district police department received a mine-resistant vehicle worth $730,000 in March, as well as three grenade launchers and more than 60 M-16s. After that was initially reported by MuckRock in September, the NAACP and other organizations called for a moratorium on the 1033 program, pending a review of agency eligibility. Facing community backlash, the Los Angeles district’s police chief indicated that he would keep the rifles but acknowledged armored vehicles and grenade launchers are not “‘essential’ piece[s] of equipment for our daily scope and mission.” The school district said on Wednesday that it no longer owns the mine-resistant vehicle.
In Michigan, the Detroit Public Schools Police Department obtained six bomb disposal robots last year, in addition to three utility trucks in the last four years. The district police would not comment Wednesday on how they use the equipment and would only confirm via email their participation in the program.
More than 130 college and university police departments, from the Colorado School of Mines to Alabama A&M University, have received weaponry and equipment valued at more than $12 million.
The campus police at Southwest Virginia Community College were given a Humvee last year. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences received eight rifles and four shotguns. Florida International University got 50 M-16 rifles and a mine-resistant vehicle. Black River Technical College in Pocahontas, Ark. got a $5.3 million cargo plane and dozens of rifles and pistols.
Parks and Recreation
A wide range of state agencies participate in the program, including some that oversee wildlife, parks, and conservation.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources received 184 M-16 rifles valued at $78,000. Assistant Chief Mark Rouleau of the department’s game warden division said that such high-caliber weapons are useful for his officers, who are sometimes the first to respond to incidents in rural areas.
“You’ve got to remember that our officers work alone in remote areas, and that every person we encounter has a high-powered rifle,” said Rouleau. “It’s a tactical thing. Unlike a city police officer, we generally don’t have any backup. If we get lucky, our backup is a half-hour away.”
The Arizona Game and Fish Department received more than $3.3 million in tactical equipment, including two aircraft and more than 50 gun sights.
From Uncle Sam to Uncle Sam
By far, the biggest customer of the 1033 program has been the federal government itself. The State Department’s narcotics enforcement branch in Florida has received more than $212 million in aircraft since 2010. Customs and Border Protection units in several states got at least 17 cargo planes, 10 helicopters and 10 bomb robots, and a total of $39 million worth of tactical equipment since the program began in 1991.
Other federal agencies that received tactical equipment through the program include the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Secret Service, as well as agencies not usually associated with law enforcement, such as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Million Dollar Club”
As first reported by USA Today in 2012, the Defense Logistics Agency gives a “Million Dollar Customer” award to agencies that take more than $1 million in equipment. Among the 203 departments whose receipt of tactical equipment alone would make them eligible to join the club, you might correctly expect to find Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston, but big city departments aren’t the only ones to make the cut.
Since 2006, police in Winthrop Harbor, Ill., a village of 6,700 along the shore of Lake Michigan, has received 10 helicopters, one mine-resistant armored vehicle and two Humvees, and other equipment, worth more than $6.5 million.
In Alabama, the Oxford Police Department received $3.7 million in equipment since 2008, including 9 Humvees, two heavily armored vehicles, a utility truck and expensive aircraft equipment. Oxford has 22,000 residents and 50 sworn police officers.
Secret No More
In the past year, a dozen states have either rejected Freedom of Information Act requests for information about their programs or claimed not to have the information.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety, for instance, insisted that releasing the information about equipment transfers “would be like providing criminals a blueprint on how to harm law enforcement or get around their security tactics.” Similarly, the South Dakota Highway Patrol invoked a broad provision in the state’s public records law that exempts information pertaining to law enforcement equipment, while a spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs answered that “it would be irresponsible for us to disclose sensitive records that a federal agency has chosen to withhold.”
Their secrets are secret no more.
According to the defense department data, five agencies in North Carolina received mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles valued at more than $400,000 each, including police in the small city of Roanoke Rapids, which has 15,000 residents and 35 police officers. Another 11 agencies received grenade launchers.
The armored vehicles and M-16s get all the attention, but the 1033 program has its lighter side. The non-tactical transfers include games and toys, musical instruments, personal electronics, and exercise equipment.
In addition to two dump trucks and two sedans, the go-getters at the New Lothrop, Michigan, police department scored enough instruments to start a band – two snare drums, a bass drum, an electric guitar, a bass guitar and accessories – in addition to four treadmills and a VCR to watch while exercising.
Other goodies from the five-sided big-box store:
- 6 french horns
- 3 saxophones
- 372 televisions (designated “for personal/home use”)
- 387 sets of dumbbells
- 58 softballs
- 121 treadmills
Oh, and more than 3,700 boxes of ready-to-eat meals, 2,800 of them to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Insert donut joke here.
Tactical Items Distributed by Department of Defense 1033 Program
SOURCE: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, DEFENSE LOGISTICS AGENCY, DISPOSITION SERVICES
After the initial protests in Ferguson, President Obama ordered a review of the 1033 program and similar federal initiatives that provide funding and equipment to police. The resulting White House report, released Monday, determined “that there is often insufficient transparency to decisions surrounding the acquisition of equipment.” The review concluded that such a lack of transparency “can result in the proliferation of equipment in amounts that are often inconsistent with the size and training capacity” of smaller agencies.
Two Congressional committees — the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs — have called hearings on the 1033 program in the wake of Ferguson.
There has been bipartisan momentum behind a proposed bill that would halt the program’s transfers of armored vehicles, certain automatic and high-caliber weapons, combat aircraft and grenades. The bill would also require departments to publicly post all equipment requests online and certify that its officers were properly trained to use requested items. It does not appear that Congress will move the bill forward in the remaining weeks of this session.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that the Pentagon’s November release of agency data for its Excess Property Program detailed all tactical equipment it has sent to law enforcement agencies. The story has been changed to say that the data released includes only tactical equipment currently tracked by the Pentagon. Other transfers, particularly in the early years of the program or of equipment transferred between agencies or no longer in use, may not be included.
For more info on the methodology used to analyze the data, head to The Marshall Project.