The Defense Department’s 1033 program has allowed law enforcement to muddy the water on the distinction between police force and military force. Given the right reasoning (most commonly cited: Wars on Terror/Drugs), police departments are allowed to pick up surplus military gear, often for free (utilizing DHS grants) and start pretending they’re an occupying force, rather than public servants.
This came to a head following protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where viewers around the world were treated to the sight of local law enforcement rolling up on residents in mine-resistant vehicles while clad in gear that made officers look far more like soldiers than cops. This prompted a rollback of the 1033 program by Obama, limiting the sort of gear police departments could obtain to more innocuous surplus, like computers and furniture.
That has since changed. President Trump, showing his support for all things law enforcement, rolled back Obama’s rollback, giving police departments access to assault vehicles and military weapons. With this comes a rollback in trust, as it has been shown giving military gear to cops makes them believe they’re soldiers in a war zone, rather than public servants in a community.
Not everyone abuses this program, but those that do, do so spectacularly. An 11-member police force for a Delaware town with 400 residents has availed itself of more than $3 million in 1033 gear over the last five years. This first came to light late last year when documents obtained by Muckrock prompted town officials to wonder why they hadn’t been notified of the department’s stockpile.
When asked if the Dewey PD could account for all of the items by providing the physical location of items in their possession and paper trails for items sold, Sgt. Cliff Dempsey said, “We’re not going to comment on that matter at this time.”
On the agenda for a Nov. 11 Dewey Beach commissioners’ meeting is the discussion of three options for to the 1033 program:
1. require the DBPD to provide complete accounting for property received through any federal or surplus property program,
2. accept a recommendation from the town’s audit committee to utilize the town’s auditors, or
3. hire an independent consultant to conduct a more comprehensive review.
Some of the military equipment can be located. A recent report by the Milford Beacon contains a photo showing five military trucks and two ATVs parked in the department’s storage lot. But that is only a small part of the Dewey PD’s total holdings.
[A]mong hundreds of line items turned over between March 2013 and December 2017, the police acquired a total of 12 ATVs, 51 jackets or parkas and 13 space heaters, and 19 trucks of all kinds.
Dewey’s department has just eight full-time and three part-time officers, the town population is less than 400 people and the town itself is a just mile long and two blocks wide.
This includes a mine-resistant armored car and an armored Humvee — all to oversee 400 people residing in a one-mile, two-block stretch. The justifications for even the more innocuous acquisitions are questionable, if not downright laughable. As the Beacon points out, the Dewey PD requested boats for water rescues, something already handled by a separate beach patrol and the Coast Guard. ATVs were supposedly handed to the department for something termed “homeland security patrols.”
Many items were obtained to support the PD’s private shooting range, including multiple tractors to shore up backstop berms and parkas to wear on colder days. The location of the range is kept secret by the department and the town was not (knowingly) involved in financing its construction. This secret range is mentioned more than 50 times in the PD’s 1033 requests.
Despite this news surfacing last November, town commissioners have yet to receive any answers from the department it apparently can’t oversee.
At their Feb. 10 meeting, Commissioner Gary Persinger lamented, “We’re three months down the road and we don’t have information in response to that request.”
As of March 1, [Mayor T.J.] Redefer said had not yet been privy to the departmental justifications of need.
On top of this, the department has apparently been selling some of the surplus it has received. Certain sales are permitted by federal law, but there has been no reporting by the police department detailing the amount of money received or what is being done with the funds. The extensive list of items obtained makes it appear the Dewey PD has stocked and furnished its office at federal taxpayers’ expense while avoiding any sort of local accountability.
All of this is legal under state and federal law. In Delaware, law enforcement agencies aren’t required to notify local governments about 1033 acquisitions and sales. And so they don’t, apparently, even though it would make more sense in the long run to be upfront about it. When details about acquired military equipment remain solely in the hands of law enforcement recipients, the general assumption is something is being abused. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, right? But as is so often the case, details are uncovered years after the fact and often by unrelated third parties who apparently care more about police oversight than the local governments charged with overseeing their law enforcement agencies.