Military surplus donations to police resume


On August 9, 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an African American teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a national discussion was sparked on police brutality, the relationship between law enforcement officers and the African American communities they cover, militarization of police, and the appropriate use of force.

In Ferguson, Brown's death, and the community outcry, escalated as a makeshift memorial to Brown of flowers and candles was allegedly spoiled when a police officer allowed a dog under his control to urinate on the memorial. Later, police vehicles – armored vehicles, actually – crushed the memorial, leading to civil unrest in the city – some in the form of peaceful protests, some as looting and rioting. In reaction, several police departments assembled before protesters in riot gear and faced them down. Over a two-day period, police and SWAT teams fired tear gas and rubber bullets at lines of protesters and reporters, who were marching, and tanks were seen on the streets of Ferguson.

According to reports, protesters in Ferguson carried signs, with many holding their hands in the air while shouting “don't shoot,” apparently in reference to rumors that Brown had had his hands raised in an attempt to surrender when he was shot. Yet according to police, some protesters threw bottles at them, which prompted them to use tear gas in an effort disperse the crowd. The following day, about 70 SWAT team officers joined police to face an even larger crowd of protesters, using smoke bombs, flash grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters.

As the protests grew, so did national news coverage, and the image the country saw were police officers looking like armed forces attacking unarmed citizens.

On August 14, Sen. Clair McCaskill (D-Missouri) stated that “militarization of the police escalated the protesters' response.”

By August 23, President Obama ordered a review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police, questioning whether the use of such equipment contributed to the racial unrest in Ferguson. Obama suspended the program, but it was re-instituted by President Trump in August 2017.

Then-Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement in 2014, “It makes sense to look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard disagrees. “Tanks are used to destroy things. Armored vehicles are used to protect people,” he asserted.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Department has acquired millions of dollars of surplus military equipment over the last 20 years, when the equipment became available to them, most of which officials say has proven beneficial for officers, as well as taxpayers, because it is free for the asking. The only expense is the cost of going to get the equipment and then providing maintenance and storage. Bouchard, and many law enforcement chiefs, state the equipment offers protection to both law enforcement and citizens without having to dip into taxpayer funds.

“Since the Great Recession, I don't know a single department that has bounced back,” said Rick Myers, executive director, Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Every department has less cops on the street but with an increased population and more responsibility. Because of that, leaderships are more mindful of efficiencies and responsibilities of deploying resources.”

Most law enforcement agencies around the United States have not just decided they would like to buy a bunch of military-grade equipment to have on hand, and law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, didn't just randomly buy a bunch of military-grade tanks and weapons. Rather, since 1997, police agencies around the country have participated in the 1033 program, which legally requires the U.S. Department of Defense to make various items of equipment available to local law enforcement agencies.

The 1033 program, operated for the Defense Department through the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which has Michigan locations in Warren and Battle Creek, transfers excess or out-of-date military equipment to law enforcement agencies and schools around the country. The program began as the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990, an act of Congress, not the Pentagon, defenders note, to authorize the transfer of military hardware from the Department of Defense to federal and state agencies specifically for the use in the War on Drugs, according to 1033 Program information. Until 1997, it was called the 1208 program, and run through the Pentagon.

By 1995, there was the realization that all law enforcement agencies would benefit from acquiring surplus military equipment, and the Law Enforcement Support Office was created within the DLA to work exclusively with local law enforcement agencies. With the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, the 1208 program was expanded to become the 1033 program, allowing “all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission,” with “preference given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism requests,” the act stated.

The theory behind the initiative was that the military’s unneeded equipment might as well be put to good use, rather than be destroyed or warehoused.

Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, which posts on every “dime” taxed and spent by federal, state and local units of government across the U.S., said, “Liberals tend to raise civil liberty concerns while conservatives question why the federal government is involving itself in area of responsibility traditionally reserved for states and local communities. Both sides would probably agree that the federal government itself has become a ‘gun show’ that never adjourns and is distributing massive amounts of firepower to local police departments.”

From 1997 through 2014, $5.1 billion in military hardware was transferred to various local law enforcement agencies around the country from the Department of Defense, according to DLA's Law Enforcement Support Office, with more than 8,000 agencies participating since it began. According to OpenTheBook, in 2006, $29.5 million worth of equipment – 32,500 units – was given out through the 1033 program. In 2014, it had grown to $787 million and over 490,000 units. In 2015, the last year records were released, after the program was allegedly stopped, $460 million worth of equipment was disbursed to local agencies, with a total of 540,176 individual items.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Department has acquired about $4.5 million worth of equipment through the 1033 Program over a period of 18 years, although Bouchard said that some of the requested armaments were returned as his department discovered they either didn't work properly or weren't worth what they thought they would be. Others, including about 540 rifles over a period of 16 years, have been a huge benefit.

“When I became sheriff (1999), we were able to procure rifles through the 1033 program, and we were able to train in rifles, so that at any time across the county if there is an active shooter with a rifle, we can respond, engage and protect law enforcement and the public,” Bouchard said.

Why is there so much surplus weaponry and hardware available in the first place that can be acquired by non-military agencies? The Defense Department says they have a great deal of surplus equipment by the reduced American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at the same time, 17 years of war has produced a surfeit of property, whether it's vehicles, rifles, air conditioners, clothing, computers or medical equipment. About a third of the equipment transferred to local law enforcement is new, and the most commonly obtained item from the program is ammunition, according to DLA. Other commonly requested items are cold weather clothing, sand bags, medical supplies, sleeping bags, flashlights and electrical wiring. Office equipment, which some smaller police departments can't afford, is requested, and the DLA has offered tactical armored vehicles, grenade launchers, watercraft and aircraft.

There are some that have said that some of the items, like Humvees, mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, aircraft, boats, sniper scopes, and M-16s, can raise eyebrows. Yet, facilitators of the program point out that only about five percent of the available equipment is weaponry, and less than one percent is tactical vehicles, which have been stripped down before they're repurposed for police agencies. Most of what law enforcement agencies receive are leftover office equipment, blankets and sleeping bags, flashlights, cameras, clothing and other less exciting disbursements.

The DLA determines what becomes available to civilian law enforcement – not police agencies who may request items. They, as part of the Department of Defense, have the final authority to determine which excess equipment and military gear is appropriate for use for law enforcement activities. And the DLA does site visits periodically to make sure the equipment they've allocated is being used appropriately.

“It is up to local law enforcement to determine how and when and where and under what circumstances they use excess military equipment,” former Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in 2014. “We don't take a position on the way the equipment is used.”

“It's been a huge benefit because we're taking surplus and devalued equipment and utilizing it,” Bouchard said. “It's a great benefit to taxpayers because they've already paid for it, and it's being put back to use – it's being put back to great use for us.”

How could the acquisition of large trucks, tactical armored vehicles, night vision goggles, rifles, and other equipment, possibly be a benefit to Oakland County taxpayers? Bouchard is accurate, in that there is no cost from the federal government to local law enforcement agencies, who are essentially taking the proffered items off of the feds' hands. In exchange, local agencies do have to go and get the equipment or pay for shipping costs, and then pay for its storage and maintenance – but there is no fee or payment required for the actual items acquired. The DLA notes that “the program gives smaller police departments access to material that larger police departments are usually able to afford without federal assistance.”

“If I had the money to just buy an armored vehicle that was designed for civilian law enforcement, I would. It's not the vehicle I would have chosen if money wasn't an option, if I could just go buy a vehicle,” said West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton of the $733,000 mine resistant vehicle the department obtained in May of 2014. “But the need is there. Timeliness is there for us to respond to an incident and not have to wait for the Oakland County Sheriff's Department and Michigan State Police – there's always a time delay. We're sending our officers into harmful situations. We don't always know what the risk is going to be when we go into it.”

Patton noted that in 2012, West Bloomfield officer Patrick O'Rourke, 39, a 12-year veteran of the force was killed in a shooting by a barricaded gunman. The Sheriff's Department provided a SWAT unit and a robot with a camera to try to find the shooter.

“We put neighbors, little kids, whole families, inside our armored vehicles and evacuated them safely,” Bouchard said, pointing out an example of how the department has used repurposed military armored vehicles – tanks – to protect officers and the public, rather than as quasi-military. “That's just one example. We have numerous examples where we have safely evacuated and protected people.”

Bouchard said they utilize equipment in that manner on a regular basis.

Major Cities Chiefs Association Myers pointed out, “We've shifted from a warrior mindset to a guardian mindset, but there are unfortunate times when they have to shift to warrior mindset – when cops have to go to battle, and we want them to battle safely – and come home safely.”

Mark Fancher, attorney for racial justice work for the ACLU in Detroit, said, “We generally oppose the militarization of police and the 1033 program that facilitates that. What contributes to tensions between police and communities of color is the police having a warrior mentality rather than being individuals to protect and serve the community. We believe policing is a bad idea to approach from a military point of view.”

Fancher continued, “If there is a presumption that the community is a danger, that they have to be dealt with fear, aggression, if it is in the form of assault weapons, military weapons, then all the ingredients are there for violent conflict. The police will often say they have to approach with a warrior attitude because they don't know them – but that implies implicit bias that does not necessarily extend to an affluent, white community.”

Yet, data show that law enforcement agencies in Oakland County vary not based on demographics, with some affluent communities choosing to take advantage of the opportunity to procure excess military equipment, while others rely on the sheriff's department, and some less affluent departments choosing that route as well, while others got trucks, rifles and expensive sight goggles.

West Bloomfield Police have also acquired a pan and tilt assembly thermal viewer through the 1033 program, worth almost $3,000 in July 2014; a $77,000 remote-controlled vehicle in June 2017; and 200 $3 first aid field dressing kits in June 2017.

“Storage costs are pretty minimal,” Bouchard said. Patton concurred, noting they utilize an indoor facility for their MRAP.

Available equipment shows up on a military surplus list on a rolling basis, Bouchard said, rather than on a monthly or annual basis, “so we have someone on staff who peruses it regularly.” He said it's not a centralized list, though, because items are located all over the country, and they are not geographically specific.

“It's whoever gets it first,” Bouchard said. “It could be in Tennessee, or in California.”

Shipping costs for small items, like first aid items, may be minimal, but if it's for a large utility truck, sending deputies to California to acquire it and drive it back may not justify the “free” cost.

A memorandum of agreement between the DLA and states that participate in the 1033 program requires local police to either use the military equipment within one year or return it to the DLA.

“Certain equipment, if you don't use it – or don't want to use it – it must be returned to the military or given to another law enforcement agency,” he said, or items that include firearms, armored vehicles, “and other more controlled items, where there has to be strict inventory control. Some items, once you have them for a year or two, they fall off of accountability – like boots, coats, filing cabinets, first aid kits. They're not controlled, and if you disposed of them, or you didn't utilize them, they can be thrown out.”

According to records from the Federal Weapons Loaned to Public Bodies, the sheriff's office first began accessing and acquiring surplus items from DLA in 1999, the year Bouchard became the county sheriff. Besides the 540 rifles acquired over the years, beginning in December 1999, and then in September 2000, with rifles and night vision goggles. They accelerated their acquisitions in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2012 alone, the sheriff's department requested and received dozens of rifles; 400 infrared transmitters; night vision goggles; 200 sight reflex, which are optical devices, worth $1,170 each; four telescopes at $2,000; 10 other telescopes worth $800 a piece; four robots worth $8,000 a piece; binoculars; five night vision viewers worth $10,427 each; 22 ballistic and laser protective spectacles, at $20 each; 400 infrared illuminators, at $360 a crack; a thermacam camera, worth almost $12,000; a parts kit, valued at $28,816; and two utility trucks – one valued at $172,193, the other at $329,000.

The department acquired a utility truck in 2011, as well, worth $46,983, and two in 2013, each valued at $58,939. Other significant acquisitions requisitioned from DLA in 2013 were eight laser range finders worth $20,501 each; 50 infrared illuminators, valued at $160 each; three inflatable life rafts, $5,432 a piece; four supplemental armor sets at $24,709 each; and 150 holographic weapon gun sights, at $507 each.

Along with rifles, the other major acquisition by the department occurred in January 2016, when they were able to procure a mine resistant vehicle worth $733,000.

That's almost $2.6 million worth of law enforcement equipment the department acquired without any cost to taxpayers – much less all of the other equipment over the years.

“We don't get things like grenade launchers. But why should we go out and buy something when you have thousands of it in inventory in storage?” Bouchard asked.

He pointed out that bayonets, with their swordlike, bladed weapon-tips over a rifle, have the perception of a war weapon. In actuality, according to the Elite Forces Handbook of Unarmed Combat, today a bayonet is rarely, if ever, used in one-to-one combat – although it is still issued by many armies. It is often used for controlling prisoners, or as a weapon of “last resort.” It is also used by soldiers as a ground tool, as a survival knife. Hence, the availability of bayonets to local law enforcement through the DLA and 1033 program. Bouchard said a practical use to local law enforcement “is to cut someone out of a seat belt in a car accident, or to cut wires away. It's as a life saving or first aid tool. There are also ceremonial bayonets, for our ceremonies, for funerals and parades. They're part of our honor guard.” They are not for actual use, he pointed out.

“The bottom line is – we hope and pray we never have to use this equipment. But in our line of work, hope and prayer is not a strategy,” Bouchard emphasized. “Preparation is. So we work and prepare.”

For him and his officers, a lot of this excess military equipment helps with the preparation part.

But there are arguments across the country that smaller police departments are collecting battlefield worthy arsenals, all thanks to the 1033 program. And while the Oakland County Sheriff's Department spends money and time on training its officers and on proper maintenance and storage, lots of small law enforcement departments around the country – even around the county – do not make that same effort. The concern is that they are stockpiling military equipment which could be misused – or worse, get into the wrong hands.

In Wixom, with a population of 13,500, the public safety department acquired a utility truck worth $41,061 in 2012, and another worth $47,023 in 2013. They also received a mine resistant vehicle, worth $658,000, in 2013.

They have not received anything else from the 1033 program.

Novi Police Department also received a utility truck, worth $46,983, in 2011.

The Troy Police Department also received a utility truck, worth $49,897, in 2012, along with 45 reflex sight vision goggles, each valued at $315.

Farmington Hills Police received 152 military field packs in 2016, each valued at $349, and 600 field first aid dressing kits, at $3 a piece in 2017. Farmington Police also received field first aid dressing kits in 2017, 92 worth $3 each, as well as four $138 rifles in 2000; six rifles worth $749 each in 2014; and 23 military field packs, each valued at $349, in 2016.

The Waterford Police Department has not received anything since 2002, when they acquired one 5.56 mm rifle worth $500. They acquired 17 of the rifles in 1998, and two other rifles in 1995, along with a pair of $2,200 night vision goggles in 2000.

The Lake Angelus Police Department acquired 13 $500 rifles in 2012.

Southfield last had an acquisition in 1995, when it received nine rifles worth $138 each. Lathrup Village acquired rifles, as well, two valued at $500 in 1998; and two worth $500 in 2002. Ferndale's police department received 10 $138 rifles in 2001, and 100 $3 field first aid dressing kits in 2017.

In Orchard Lake Village, two $500 rifles were procured in 2005. Sylvan Lake Police got four rifles worth $138 each in 2000. Lake Angelus Police received 13 $500 rifles in 2012.

In S. Lyon, the police department was able to get four rifles, two worth $120 in 2009; and two worth $750 in 2014.

Clawson's police department acquired an armored truck in 2000, worth $65,070, and 17 $500 rifles in 2012. In Beverly Hills, they received six rifles, at $138 each, in 2003.

But many other departments choose not to take advantage of the 1033 program.

“We have nothing, and we have never asked for anything,” said Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence. “A lot of that stuff is super for a big city or a county. If you have a SWAT team, or marine protection, where you need that. But we don't. We'd have the expense of housing it, and insuring it and maintaining it. It's free to get it – but then you have other costs.

“It's a wonderful program – I'm very supportive of it. It only increases officer safety. For a municipality to buy an armored vehicle is big money – and then to work it into their budget, it may no longer meet military standards, but it's ideal for a county like Oakland, or a big city.”

“I've got nothing. We've never done that,” said Bloomfield Township Chief Scott McCanham. “We don't have a tactical unit. We use Oakland County's (Sheriff Department). I know they have benefitted (from the program).

“It's never been in our past, and I don't see it in our future. For us to take it – there are people who need it more than us.”

Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Chief Noel Clason concurred. “We don't have any, and never had,” he said. “We rely on the county for any tactical needs.”

He also said they are able to receive enough funding for their primary needs – a critical reason why so many local law enforcement departments around the country have turned to the 1033 program.

“We're able to fund any patrol rifle, and they're military grade,” Clason said. “If we need anything, we would go with Oakland County SWAT or the Michigan State Police. Plus, we don't have any storage for any of it.”

Rochester has never sought or received any surplus military equipment, either.

Royal Oak Police Deputy Police Chief Mike Frazier said he believed they did procure a few items years ago, “but a lot of it wasn't worth it. We gave the guns back because we didn't use them. The night vision apparatus weren't in working order, and it would have cost us more to bring them into working order than buying new ones.”

He said the accounting process, while necessary, is a lot of paperwork, and perhaps not worth the value of the acquisitions – at least for them.

The 1033 program was halted in 2014 by President Obama after Ferguson, much to the chagrin of Bouchard and others, and some large scale equipment, like tanks and trucks, had to be returned to the Department of Defense. President Trump re-instituted the program in August 2017, but acquisitions have been slow around the country.

Myers, of Major Cities Chiefs Association, said, “After the cessation of the 1033 program, some departments struggled because some equipment they needed couldn't be purchased with their budgets. What's interesting, it was predicted by some there would be a rush to acquire the equipment when it was allowed again, but actually, it's been slow. I have a theory – in the aftermath of the ban, it's lead many chiefs to reflect the use of that equipment – if it's needed, what's the proper usage, and how to avoid the backlash like Ferguson.

“When I was a chief of a large city department (he was chief in Plymouth years ago), we certainly had an armored vehicle for a SWAT situation, but we never used it for a 4th of July parade. I think we've all seen the images of N. Korea and Russia, and images of the military parades, and I don't think those are the images we should be using and leading with. This equipment is merely tools, not the basis of police work. Think images of Pulse Nightclub, the Vegas shooter, where the shooter is heavily armed – we have an obligation to arm our officers with the equipment to meet and fight the shooter or shooters to protect the public, but that does not equate to showing off our toys.” ­

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