Small-Town Cops Have Received Free War Equipment Worth Billions

By Alan Boyle on Tuesday, November 26, 2013
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“Men are never very wise and select in the exercise of a new power.” —William Ellery Channing, The Present Age, An Address

In A Nutshell

The 1033 Program is a piece of legislation you may not be familiar with, but it has seen military hardware worth $4.2 billion pass into the hands of small-town state police since 1997. Over $500 million of that was in 2012. The law was designed to allow spare military equipment to be efficiently reused to combat drugs and terrorism, but a lack of oversight has allowed any police chief or sheriff to acquire anything they want for any reason. Municipal police forces have received—for free—tanks, armored mine-proof vehicles, drones, surveillance blimps, high-powered rifles, and parts from A-10 anti-tank planes.

The Whole Bushel

Lynwood Yates, a police chief from Morven, Georgia, is probably the most over-prepared police officer in the country. His small town has fewer than 700 residents. It also has no water deeper than a few inches, yet Yates has equipped himself with three boats, scuba gear, and rescue rafts. He also picked up a $200,000 decontamination machine, which he hopes to fix (it needs $100,000 worth of repairs) in case of a terrorist attack. He can also respond to that hypothetical attack with his Humvee or armored personnel carrier.

The police force of Rising Star, Texas, received $3.2 million worth of stuff including TVs, computers, and meat slicers (that most well-known of law enforcement tools). The “police force” in question consisted of one full-time officer. The items went “missing,” oddly enough. One piece of equipment that is still with law enforcement officials is the tank (with rotating machine gun turret) given to a sheriff in South Carolina. In New York, the Jefferson County sheriff’s department opted for a few Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles. Those were used to protect against roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet these are nothing compared to the $34 billion of grants given out by the government to improve homeland security since 9/11. Augusta, Maine has kitted its officers with $1,500 tactical vests. The last time an officer was killed by gunfire there was in the 19th century. That shows a lack of ambition compared to the $300,000 drone in use by the sheriff’s department in Montgomery County, Texas, or the high-tech blimp being put to use in Utah.

Naturally, this militarization of America’s local police forces has drawn criticism. Organizations opposed to these measures, including the American Civil Liberties Union, suggest law enforcement shouldn’t be treated as a war. It’s been suggested that allowing any law enforcement official in the country to gain access to the equipment required to set up their own small armies has the potential to go wrong.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect is that no one is overseeing the distribution of equipment, and it’s not necessarily being looked after when police forces have taken it. One sheriff’s department in Arizona was found to be sharing its military equipment with non-police groups and had plans to sell some of it at auction.

Ultimately, it seems the US government has decided that the best way to dispose of its unneeded tools of war is to share them out to anyone with a badge and forget about them.

Show Me The Proof

$4.2 Billion in Military Hardware Donations Fuels Militarization of U.S. Police Forces
AP IMPACT: Little restraint in military giveaways
Local Cops Ready for War With Homeland Security-Funded Military Weapons