Police action in response to civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following a fatal shooting on 9 August 2014 has brought scrutiny to the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Excess Property Program 1033 (DOD 1033). Often referred to as the “surplus-property program” or colloquially as the “hand-me-down program,” DOD 1033 is a federal program that facilitates the transfer of excess DOD equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for reuse at little or no cost to the receiving agency.
Two weeks after the shooting, in response to criticism of the perceived militarization of civilian law enforcement agencies, President Barack Obama ordered a comprehensive review of the program. This review likely will: (a) lead to recommendations and changes to ensure the program does not exacerbate the perceived militarization of civilian police forces; and (b) update standards to ensure proper training and use of certain military-grade equipment. Although the review is generally welcomed by the American people to ensure that law enforcement agencies are not on a slippery slope to becoming paramilitary organizations, DOD 1033 is of great value to the American taxpayer and provides much needed equipment to cash-strapped police departments around the country.
Sharing Excess Resources to Protect the Public The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal years 1990 and 1991 authorized the transfer of excess DOD property to law enforcement and corrections agencies for use in counterdrug activities, under then-program 1208. During the reduction of military forces in the mid-1990s, large amounts of excess equipment – much of the equipment used in the Gulf War – were passed down to state and local law enforcement and corrections agencies. In 1996, Congress amended the program by removing most corrections agencies, as well as jailers and wardens, as qualified recipients. Other changes widened the receiving agency mission scope beyond just counterdrug activities. DOD 1033 was opened to all bona fide law enforcement agencies whose compensated law enforcement officers have powers of arrest and apprehension.
The types of equipment transferred under DOD 1033 include everything from armored vehicles and helicopters to office supplies. Although much of the recent media attention has focused on MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles and weapons, the list of most-received items includes first aid kits, flashlights, goggles, and sandbags. In 2013 alone, DOD transferred nearly a half-billion dollars’ worth of excess property to some of the over 8,000 civilian law enforcement agencies that participate in the program. The program has been successful in the efficient allocation of resources, from which taxpayers benefit.
However, there is public fear that DOD 1033 will facilitate the militarization – policing by military or even paramilitary police forces – of domestic law enforcement. This conviction is deeply rooted in the fabric and history of the United States. The founding fathers cautioned on the dangers of using standing armies for domestic policing, and this sentiment is evident in several of the Federalist Papers. As Samuel Adams wrote in 1768 in the Boston Gazette, “Even when there is a necessity of the military power, within a land . . . a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it.” Throughout the republic’s history, measures have been in place to protect against this concern.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 laid the foundation and removed the army from conducting local policing operations during the Reconstruction era. The Posse Comitatus Act was later applied to all branches of the military – with the exception of the Coast Guard, which now falls under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the nonfederalized National Guard, which may be empowered with domestic law enforcement responsibilities when under the command and control of a state’s governor and the adjutant general. Only under exigent circumstances would the federal military have domestic law enforcement powers under the command of the president and secretary of defense.
Fortunately, in the United States, almost no law enforcement activities require a military response, and the vast majority of police calls do not require a civilian armored or tactical response. Rather, they require the “soft skills” of policing, such as good judgment, problem solving, quick decision-making, effective communication, empathy, compassion, multitasking, resourcefulness, courage, vigilance, and integrity. However, the United States can be a violent and dangerous place, where criminals exploit their freedoms to do harm.
Many law enforcement agencies deal with hardened and violent criminals daily, with high-risk apprehensions being commonplace in some jurisdictions. Moreover, there is a great threat of domestic terrorism with homemade bombs, such as those used in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and well-armed, coordinated assaults, such as the “Mumbai-style” attacks. Terrorism aside, police departments in the United States occasionally handle crimes from extremely violent, well-armed criminals.
A Shift in Criminals, Budgets & Police Tactics The 1997 North Hollywood, California, bank robbery and shootout was a watershed moment in modern policing that compelled law enforcement agencies around the United States to reevaluate their equipment assets – or lack thereof. Assailants wore body armor and carried automatic assault weapons with 3,300 rounds of ammunition, including armor piercing bullets. Outgunned and underresourced, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers had to commandeer a civilian armored truck to evacuate the wounded. During the intense firefight, officers also commandeered shotguns, rifles, and more-powerful ammunition from a local gun shop. In the days after that violent assault, the LAPD secured rifles from DOD surplus as police departments around the country reevaluated their equipment needs.
Although this robbery was an anomaly in its magnitude of violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation 2012 statistics revealed that a robbery occurs every 1.5 minutes in the United States. In the same year, 48 police officers died in the line of duty during felonious incidents. When an armored or tactical response is required, local police departments need to have equipment to effectively counter the threat and remain safe. However, such equipment is expensive, so many local and state police departments simply cannot afford it. For example, the BEARCAT® (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck) is a popular armored vehicle used by many civilian law enforcement agencies, but it can cost up to $300,000.
The recent economic downturn has put a strain on local and state budgets, as well as public safety budgets. A 2011 report published by the International Association of Police Chiefs found that some 85 percent of responding law enforcement agencies had to reduce their budgets, with nearly a quarter of them cutting 10 percent or more. Buying new equipment often comes secondary to keeping “feet on the street,” yet many departments have experienced layoffs and furloughs. A natural and efficient way to meet the needs of state and local law enforcement is to locate excess equipment at low or no cost.
The U.S. federal government is the single largest buyer in the world. Having the biggest defense budget in the world, the DOD spends billions of dollars each year on the development and acquisition of equipment, some of which has dual or multiuse applications. When this equipment is no longer needed, the DOD can pay to have it destroyed or transfer it to other organizations that need equipment. In the case of DOD 1033, some equipment that qualifies for transfer but is not claimed is destroyed, donated, or sold. Matching needy customers to excess supplies is at the heart of efficient allocation of resources.
Continuing Support for Future Threats Like many high-profile incidents, the civil unrest in Ferguson serves as a flashpoint for many peripheral issues. Despite common misconception, Saint Louis County – where the city of Ferguson is located – did not receive heavy tactical equipment, such as MRAPs, through DOD 1033. Rather, DOD records show Ferguson received items such as radios, generators, and utility trucks. This is the type of functional equipment often requested by local first responders during major disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Saint Louis County also received a small number of pistols and rifles under the program, which is equipment frequently procured by law enforcement agencies using their own budgets without DOD’s assistance.
Economic benefits of DOD 1033 should not be overlooked due to the tactical response in Ferguson and an ingrained fear of military rule. The saying, “Do more with less,” has become conventional in the new era of reduced government spending and DOD 1033 does just that.