President Donald Trump last week lifted Obama-era restrictions on the transfer of surplus military hardware to police departments; however, a review of Defense Department data shows the flow of materiel actually increased in Washington state despite the prohibition on some items.
Since the inception of the Department of Defense’s so-called “1033 Program” as part of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs in 1991, more than $30.2 million in surplus military gear has been given to state law-enforcement agencies.
Of that total, items worth roughly $9.4 million — from body bags to mine-resistant vehicles — were distributed between January 2015 and June 30 of this year — most after Obama restricted distribution of some items, according to a Seattle Times review of data provided by the Defense Logistics Agency.
The continued popularity of the program among law-enforcement agencies baffles civil libertarians, who fear police are becoming militarized and wonder what lessons have been learned from the growing outcry over police violence and use of force. It was the police response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer that prompted the Obama review of the program.
“At a time of great concern about excessive use of force by law enforcement, especially against communities of color, it defies reason to arm local police with weapons of war,” said Kathleen Taylor, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
“Military weaponry is designed to be used against enemies abroad and should not be brought home for use against our own people,” she said.
However, law-enforcement officials in Washington and elsewhere say the program allows police to obtain equipment that they would be unable to afford otherwise. They also note the items are not just military-grade vehicles and weaponry, but also first-aid kits, clothing, flashlights, tools, office supplies and even exercise equipment.
Since Obama ordered a review of the 1033 program, five Washington counties — Douglas, Grant, Kitsap, Kittitas and Skagit — have received “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected” (MRAP) vehicles, which are usually used by SWAT teams. The vehicles were not on the list of prohibited items.
The Union Gap and Arlington police departments both received unmanned bomb-disposal robots, valued at nearly $190,000 each.
However, the data also shows that the flow of military-grade firearms to law enforcement in Washington has fallen off.
Since January 2015, only seven firearms — all M4 assault rifles — were distributed through the program to Washington police departments. Six went to the Hoquiam Police Department, and the tiny Raymond Police Department, in Pacific County, obtained a single rifle.
In the years previous, more than 900 assault-style rifles, along with dozens of handguns and shotguns, were distributed to Washington law-enforcement agencies, according to a 2014 Seattle Times review of 1033 data.
Still, the acquisitions since 2015 include thousands of other tactical items used to improve the accuracy or effectiveness of firearms, such as night-vision sniper scopes or weapon-mounted adapter rails, which allow for installation of flashlights, laser sights or other equipment on a rifle or handgun frame.
None of those firearms were banned by the restrictions imposed by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was established by Obama’s 2014 executive order.
Indeed, the only items that were actually barred from being given to law enforcement were tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels or vehicles; .50-caliber firearms and ammunition; bayonets; camouflage uniforms and grenade launchers, said Michelle McCaskill, the spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency.
The restrictions also required police departments to justify to the Department of Defense the continued need for some items.
McCaskill said that the prohibited items sent to law-enforcement agencies before the ban were recalled. By a deadline of April 2016, American police agencies had returned to the military 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets, she said.
The ACLU and other civil libertarians question the need for any additional militarization of law enforcement and detailed their concerns in a report — “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” — issued two months before Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson.
“It was clear, based on images from Ferguson and elsewhere, that equipment was being misused in a way to intimidate people from exercising their First Amendment rights,” wrote Roy L. Austin Jr., the former deputy assistant to Obama for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity in the Huffington Post in response to the Trump administration’s decision to lift the restrictions.
Some Washington law-enforcement officials have praised the program, arguing that it saves taxpayers money and improves their ability to do their job safely.
The data show that based on the wide range of items ordered, the program acts like a sort of big-box store for materiel that police departments might want but can’t always afford.
Since January 2015, 126 law-enforcement agencies in the state — from the Department of Homeland Security and FBI to the tiny Yakima County police departments in Selah and Union Gap — have received 15,384 separate items. They range from “toilet paper products” sought by the Westport Police Department, valued at $1 for 20 rolls, to a pair of helicopters, each valued at $833,400, obtained by the King County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office has said it cannibalizes the 1033 helicopters for parts to keep its choppers in the air.
Other big-ticket items include the MRAPs, valued at $689,000 each. Most of the items are given to police for the price of shipping.
Union Gap police Chief Greg Cobb’s 16-man department has received more than $400,000 worth of equipment from the 1033 program since January 2015. His orders have included a bomb robot, valued at $187,000, and 15 night-vision sniper scopes worth up to $10,000 each.
“No, that’s not a fancy scope for every officer on the force,” Cobb said Thursday.
“This is military surplus and it’s not new,” he explained. “Most of it has been deployed overseas and it’s just hammered.”
Out of the 15 scopes, he expects to salvage enough working parts to piece together four or five working models that can be used by members of a regional SWAT team.
He said the bomb robot is going to be parted out to a robot the team already has.
“The articulated arm on that thing alone is worth six figures,” he said. “We’d never be able to afford that on our own.”
Cobb said he’s particular about what he asks for when using the program but knows other departments that aren’t. “You have to wonder why a city my size might want a helicopter, but I’ve seen it,” he said.
Cobb also has rules about civilian law-enforcement use of military firepower, which he finds troubling and sees no good need for it.
“I won’t ask for firearms,” whether they are available or not, he said. “I am not going to take military weapons and put them onto our streets.”
Mike Carter: email@example.com or 206-464-3706. Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.