Police Departments Benefit From Police Militarization Program, but at What Cost to Communities?
Local sheriffs claim they need military vehicles and firearms to protect communities, but experts caution against police militarization.
On June 18, the Moundsville Police Department rolled their brand new mine-resistant vehicle, or MRAP, out of a massive garage. The vehicle was enormous, loud, and painted the color of desert sand. It looked like it belonged in a warzone in Afghanistan rather than in a parking lot in rural West Virginia.
As the MRAP rolled at the pace of a few miles per hour, a local TV reporter recorded the scene. She immediately took to Twitter, captioning a video of the massive MRAP: “The Moundsville Police Department has added a vehicle to the fleet!”
The Moundsville Police Department has added a vehicle to the fleet! I’ll tell you everything this MRAP offers- and explain how the department get it for free- tonight on @WTOV9 pic.twitter.com/qveCV7X1i9
— Jaime Baker (@JBaker_WTOV) June 18, 2020
The video almost instantly exploded on social media, garnering 6.5 million views to date. Angry citizens in the replies complained about the over-militarization of police and asked why a police department in a town of fewer than 9,000 people could possibly need a military-grade MRAP.
Though the tweet faded after a few days, Americans have increasingly begun to scrutinize police departments about their ownership and use of military equipment in the last few months.
As protests against George Floyd’s slaying by police exploded across the country in early June, demonstrators in cities across the US were met with militarized police departments and officers armed with riot batons, rifles, military vehicles, MRAPs, and more.
These police departments have a variety of options for purchasing or acquiring their military equipment but by far one of the most popular methods is through the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 1033 program, which gives surplus military equipment from the Pentagon to law enforcement departments across the country.
1033 and the Defense Logistics Agency
Currently, over 8,200 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies participate in the 1033 program and hold military equipment from the DoD. The program was created in 1997 through a law passed by Congress to allow for the transfer of excess DoD equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
In 2019, 92 percent of the equipment given out through the 1033 program was classified as “non-controlled,” or general, property, which includes things like office supplies, nursing equipment, and computers. The remaining 8 percent of equipment handed out is “controlled” and given to law enforcement agencies on a loan. This includes equipment like armored vehicles, rifles, handguns, MRAPs, aircraft, and night vision equipment.
The handouts of controlled equipment are the increasingly dangerous portion of the 1033 program, according to Sabrina Karim, an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.
“There’s no doubt that [law enforcement agencies] benefit from receiving a lot of things that are a help that they do need — things like office desks and chairs,” Karim told The Defense Post. “But where I think the problem comes is when they get some of these bigger ticket items that are militaristic and that were developed by DoD to be military equipment.”
She added that it can alarm people when police begin to look like fully armed military squadrons right in the middle of communities.
“The more that the police look like the military, the less of a traditional policing role they have and they become soldiers and not police officers,” Karim said. “That takes away from any kind of community engagement [and] trust in law enforcement.”
The Dangers of Militarized Police
In a paper published in 2017, researchers found that an increase in 1033 equipment by law enforcement agencies led to an increase in police violence and an increase in civilians killed by police in those jurisdictions.
“There’s no real benefit to any drop in crime from militarization, it doesn’t make police officers more safe, and it really just makes people dislike police more,” Casey Delehanty, Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Gardner-Webb University and a co-author of the 2017 paper, told The Defense Post.
Beyond the growing evidence that militarized police forces are not more effective in reducing crime rates, there are also inherent dangers to having a militarized police force that receives equipment they would not have had without the 1033 program.
“You get this kind of equipment and it’s kind of like a Christmas present — you really want to play with it when you open it,” Karim said. “There’s kind of a really quick urge to use it for the first year for very small things when it definitely should not be used for small-time crime, but there’s the incentive to use it because it’s this shiny new toy that this department has gotten that they want to show off and use.”
Additionally, Karim said, certain communities can begin to fear police if they are so militaristic and will cease calling them during emergencies for fear they will respond with too much force.
“If you’re patrolling the streets this way, you can imagine that people are not going to be reporting crimes because that’s the new face of the police and it’s a scary face,” Karim added. “It’s particularly a scary face among the African-American community and Latino community.”
Who Gets What?
Though over 8,200 law enforcement departments have been recipients of some kind of military equipment through the 1033 program, it’s important to recognize which departments purchase their own controlled equipment and which have to acquire it from the DoD, Delehanty said.
“If you look through the data on it, one of the things you’ll find is that most major cities don’t have much coming through that program,” Delehanty said, because they often have big police budgets and can afford to purchase military equipment through commercial channels.
Delehanty added that it’s easier for big police departments in major cities to justify the use of funds on military equipment to their elected officials.
“The problem is you get these very tiny towns that don’t really have a municipal budget, nor can they really justify spending that out of the municipal budget for a $700,000 armored personnel carrier,” Delehanty said.
According to Sheriff Mike Lewis, this is the exact reason the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office on the Eastern Shore of Maryland decided to purchase an MRAP through the 1033 program.
His county has a population of about 100,000 and is two hours southeast of Baltimore County, Maryland, which hosts a population of almost 830,000. The MRAP wasn’t initially to police his own residents, Lewis said, but rather to patrol those coming in and out of the county.
US Rt. 13 and US Rt. 50, two major interstate highways, intersect in Wicomico County. For years, US 13 has been, “heavily used as a preferred route for major drug traffickers coming from Miami to New York to avoid the interstate 95 enforcement efforts of the Maryland State Police,” Lewis said.
To beef up enforcement against drug traffickers, Lewis had looked into acquiring an armored vehicle for years before his sheriff’s department got involved in the 1033 program. He’d never been granted the funds to purchase one.
“Up until the 1033 program … you couldn’t touch one of those armored vehicles for under $400,000 to $450,000. Some were well over half a million dollars to build and acquire for law enforcement. That was something I certainly didn’t have the funds to purchase,” Lewis told The Defense Post.
“Despite my pleas to our congressmen to fund an armored vehicle that I would make available for the entire Delmarva Peninsula, it fell on deaf ears until the 1033 program,” he added.
As soon as he was able to, Lewis started the process of procuring an armored vehicle and in 2014, the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office became home to an MRAP.
@COPearland @PearlandPD Pearland resident here … why in the world did you spend our tax dollars on a military vehicle? What could possibly be the justification for this? We live in a peaceful area, not in a war zone. I resent this waste of taxpayer dollars https://t.co/uJuFJ7tVdV
— Jennifer G Hudson (@NotThat_JHud) July 19, 2020
Similarly, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, which patrols in one of the most populous counties in Texas, acquired an enormous amount of controlled military property through the 1033 program because it was the cheapest source of the equipment.
Among plenty of non-controlled equipment, the Harris County Sheriff’s office has also acquired multiple aircraft, one MRAP, and multiple humvees through the 1033 program.
“The primary reason these pieces of equipment were obtained through the 1033 program instead of through a commercial source is completely one of fiduciary responsibility,” Jason Spencer, a spokesperson for the department, told The Defense Post in an email. “As a local government entity, it only makes sense to use a piece of equipment that still has a usable service life and can be acquired at no cost to the local government.”
Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, is a much smaller and less populous area than Harris County, Texas, with a population of almost 18,000. And yet, the Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff’s Office does have an MRAP they acquired through the 1033 program.
“I would’ve preferred to have a much smaller armored vehicle, but we could not find any and the MRAP was the only armored vehicle that I could get my hands on,” Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff Gary Stolzer told The Defense Post. “I have no other armored vehicles and I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on an armored vehicle.”
Though it’s easy, cheap, and convenient to acquire military equipment from the DoD, Delehanty cautions against the conclusion that police departments should be granted access to excess controlled military supplies.
“So, 1033 becomes super, super useful for the very tiny police departments to get stuff,” Delehanty said. “Whether or not they should be getting that stuff is another question.”
‘I’m Coming for You’
Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff Stolzer deems the MRAP his department acquired through 1033 necessary to protect his deputies and his citizens, regardless of outside views.
“I think you’ll find it more common in rural Missouri to see [military equipment] than you will up in the city because in the city all they’re worried about is public perception and not the safety of their men,” he said.
“Their leaders up there are too brain dead to allow their men to have things to save them,” Stolzer added. “In rural Missouri, our citizens support us having any equipment we can get our hands on to protect our men and the people here. They don’t care what it looks like.”
There is very little public opinion polling on the 1033 program. A study from 2018 indicated that most people were not aware a program like 1033 existed. A more recent poll from Data for Progress shows that a slim majority of people support making it illegal for the federal government to give heavy-duty military weapons to police departments.
Some of the military equipment police departments have, like the MRAPs and other armored vehicles, are rarely seen by the public at all.
In Maryland, the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office has only used their MRAP three times for purposes other than navigating through high water, according to Sheriff Lewis. Twice it was used in other counties. One of those instances was to assist the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to serve warrants for suspected bomb-making.
The third time was in 2015 during protests in Baltimore City over the death of 25-year-old Black man Freddie Gray in police custody.
“It was actually used to transport sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement personnel from one location to the next in the city,” Lewis said. “[The Baltimore City police department was] well aware of the resources that I was bringing into the city and they had determined that they wanted my MRAP because it was the largest militarized armored vehicle present during the entire riots.”
The vehicle was also positioned at strategic points around the city on different days of the protests to protect churches, businesses, and city hall, Lewis said.
“We were met by between 3,000 and 5,000 demonstrators and honestly violent protesters who were looting, rioting, and burning vehicles in the streets,” Lewis said.
Ryan Welch, a professor of political science at the University of Tampa who co-authored the paper on police militarization with Delehanty, cautioned against the use of military equipment like MRAPs during a period of civil unrest.
“There is research that shows that protests can become more violent when met with violent means themselves,” he told The Defense Post. “Drawing a line in the sand with a bunch of militarized troops and vehicles creates a battlespace in which protesters then feel that they’re there. And that might incite some number of people to engage in violence.”
Delehanty reached a similar conclusion.
“The literature generally emphasizes de-escalation as the way to protect from protests,” he said. “I think we’ve seen over the past couple of months that militarized police responses to ongoing protests tend to lead to worse situations, not better.”
For Sheriff Lewis, though, military equipment, whether or not it’s acquired through the 1033 program, has become essential to the work of law enforcement officers in his county and essential to protecting his citizens.
“We live in the greatest country in the world and I 150 percent support demonstrations and protests. But when they become violent and they start looting and rioting, you’re going to jail, bottom line. I’m coming for you,” he said.
Assistant Professor Karim agreed with the other researchers that de-escalation is a better way to quell violent protests than militarization.
“The signal that is being sent is that we’re not going to meet you as a person, we’re going to meet you as a soldier,” Karim said. “As opposed to, let’s find a dialogue and find a solution.”
She advocates for citizens and police officers to come together to create a more stable and healthy relationship for the future.
“The first step is to start this dialogue … Police officers need to understand that their tactics and strategies have not been working and it may have particularly not been working in communities of color,” Karim said. “The only way to do that is to start having them talk to people … I do think that a big part of the solution is to reimagine policing.”