DOD policy drives militarization of local police departments

This proved too tempting for the sheriff of Richland County, South Carolina: he ordered a tank with 360-degree rotating machine gun that shoots .50-caliber ammunition. All the Sheriff Department had to pat for was the flat-bed truck to carry the tank (to be fair to Richland County: Maricopa County, Arizona, also ordered a tank).

The latest hot military piece of equipment for which local police department are vying are UAVs, or drones. Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia cited the battlefield success of UAVs in endorsing their use on American soil. Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel of the Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office said he would consider arming his drones with rubber bullets and pepper spray.

The Montgomery County Sheriff office may have ordered too much equipment in a hurry: a few months ago the department’s SWAT team was test-flying a Vanguard Shadowhawk drone helicopter it was planning to purchase with a $300,000 grant from DHS. The purpose of the test was not only to have the SWAT team members train in controlling the drone, but also to take promotional photos to highlight the department’s latest acquisitions. Unfortunately, the Shadowhawk proved too difficult to handle, and it crashed into the tank the department received through the1033 Program.

The 1033 Program offers local police department all types of surplus military equipment, not only weapons systems. Critics say that the weak oversight of the program leads to waste and abuse. NPR offers some examples:

  • A former police chief in Rising Star, Texas, a town of 835 residents, ordered more than $3.2 million worth of equipment within fourteen months. The hundreds of items he obtained from the 1033 Program  included nine televisions, eleven computers, three deep-fat fryers, two meat slicers, twenty-two space heaters valued at $55,000 when new, a pool table, twenty-five sleeping bags, and some playground equipment.  Federal officials suspended Rising Star from the program after investigators discovered that many items were missing from police department facilities. “He was getting any kind of equipment he wanted,” Rising Star city attorney Pat Chesser said. “I don’t understand why anyone city would get that amount.”
  • A sheriff in Bureau County, Illinois  lent assault rifles obtained through the 1033 Program to his friends
  • A firearms manager in North Carolina pled guilty to stealing M-14 and M-16 assault rifles and other weapons, selling some of them on eBay
  • Eleven districts in Indiana were suspended from the program because of the high volume of weapons they lost
  • An Arizona county acquired $7 million worth of weapons and Humvees before giving them to unauthorized persons and attempting to sell them to boost county budget.
  • The police chief in the tiny farming community of Morven, Georgia, has ordered three boats, scuba gear, rescue rafts, and a couple of dozen life preservers. Morven is land-locked, and the town’s deepest body of water is an ankle-deep creek.Morven Police Chief Lynwood Yates also ordered a decontamination machine, originally worth $200,000, for his community of about 700 residents, but the machine has many parts missing and would it would take about $100,000 to fix, which the police department does not have.Yates explained that he wanted a decontaminating machine in case he has to respond to a “nuclear, chemical, biological” attack on Morven.
    Yates admitted there is not much crime in Morven, and acknowledged that his officers spend most of their time on traffic enforcement (the entire department consists of Yates and two officers).
    “This is probably one of the last quiet small Southern towns left in this area,” he said. “Even my worst drug dealer here, if I was broke down on the side of the road, they would stop and help.”
    Still, Yates also ordered twenty blankets, ten two-man combat tents, a hammock, four demagnetizers, two leg curl machines, a shoulder press, a leg press, two treadmills, twenty red gym shorts, twenty fitted bed sheets, fifty flat bed sheets and 355 sandbags, anda shipment of bayonets.
    Morven has also received a $28,000 range finder from the nose of an A-10 Warthog tank-hunting jet aircraft.

The Guardian notes that federal officials are yet to   mandate a tighter oversight on the 1033 Program. Nearly 13,000 agencies in all fifty states and four U.S. territories take part in the program, which the Defense Logistics Agency supervises for abuse. Over the years the DLA has suspended police department for poor inventory tracking, but critics charge supervision should be increased substantially.