The Pentagon has temporarily put the brakes on a popular program started in 1994 that transfers surplus military equipment to local police departments.
Over the last 17 years, the "1033 Program" has sent millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on the battlefield to domestic police agencies across the country for use on the streets and in American neighborhoods.
The program has sent equipment such as machine guns, tanks, helicopters, grenade launchers, bazookas and armored personnel carriers throughout the program.
On Friday, The Associated Press reported that the Pentagon has asked all participating law enforcement agencies to provide a comprehensive account of each piece of equipment acquired from the program, and that it would halt further transfers until agencies complied. The audit comes after a series of reports of agencies alleged to have misused the program, including an Arizona Republic investigation, which found that the Pinal County Sheriff's Department had transferred some equipment to non-police agencies, and was planning to sell some other equipment at auction.
The AP reported the news organization's inquiries into how states track the weapons found that "most of them only keep paper records, and the few states that keep electronic records only recently made the switch from paper."
Peter Kraska, a criminologist at the University of Eastern Kentucky, has long argued that even when agencies abide by the Pentagon's rules, the program has still been a factor in the militarization of American police forces, producing a more reactionary, aggressive style of policing. Kraska, who has surveyed the prevalence of SWAT teams and SWAT raids over a 30-year period, found that by 1997, 90 percent of U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or more had their own SWAT or similar paramilitary police unit. That's twice as many as a decade earlier. The overall number of SWAT-like raids jumped from a few thousand per year in the early 1980s to around 50,000 per year by 2005, when Kraska stopped sending out his survey.
In 2000 the National Journal reported, that between 1997 and 1999 alone, the Pentagon program distributed more than $700 million in military gear to local police departments. The gear was comprised of "253 aircraft (including six- and seven- passenger airplanes, and UH-60 Black- hawk and UH-1 Huey helicopters were among those sent out), 7,856 M-16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles" among other equipment.
The program has also given out weapons that have been deemed, at times, inappropriate for war situations, let alone being unnecessary for a domestic police force. Several counties, including Maricopa County, Arizona and Richland County, South Carolina, have acquired tanks with belt-fed, 360-degree rotating machine gun turrets that shoot .50-caliber ammunition. A .50 caliber bullet is powerful enough to cut through several city blocks, and any buildings that may be in its way. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott sent out a press release shortly after acquiring his tank in 2008 announcing he had named the weapon "The Peacemaker".
The program has only grown since the 2000 National Journal investigation. The AP reported Saturday that the Pentagon handed out $498 million in gear last year, an all-time high, and double the amount they gave to police forces in 2010. Last year's spending included "$191 million in aircraft . . . and more than 15,000 weapons worth nearly $4.8 million." Similarly, the California Watch reported in March that agencies in the state took home more war weaponry than in any year since the program's inception.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security began handing out anti-terrorism grants to police departments across the country to purchase more military-style equipment. The Center for Investigative Reporting reported in December that DHS has given away $34 billion for places like Fargo, North Dakota to purchase equipment like armored personnel carriers to allegedly to fight the threat of terrorism. The Huffington Post reported on a public backlash against plans to purchase a similar vehicle in Keane, New Hampshire.
A number of police agencies and politicians have also recently expressed support for the idea of using surveillance drones in the U.S.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell cited the battlefield success of unmanned drones in endorsing their use on American soil. One sheriff in Texas said he would consider arming his drones with rubber bullets and pepper spray. (In March same sheriff's department accidentally crashed one of its drones into its SWAT tank.)
The Pentagon's recent concerns, however, appear to be limited to domestic law enforcement agencies mismanaging and losing track of the military equipment, not the effect that its use might be having on how domestic police agencies interact with the public.