When most people think of their local law enforcement agency, images of officers donned in military-grade gear and armed with assault rifles are not typically what come to mind.
But in the days that followed Aug. 9, 2014, when hundreds of people marched in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. to protest the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer, the scene was reminiscent of an overseas war zone. Police were lined in riot gear behind armored vehicles in the middle-America city with a modest population of a little more than 21,000.
Ferguson’s use of military equipment and gear is not unique, however. Thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country have enrolled in and benefited from the federal 1033 Program, which transfers excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies for use in domestic emergencies.
For more than a decade, the Law Enforcement Support Office, which facilitates the 1033 Program under the National Defense Authorization Act, has cleared the way for police agencies to apply for equipment that has been turned in by military units or held as part of reserve stocks until no longer needed.
According to the LESO, the 1033 Program has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property to federal and state agencies. In 2013, $4.5 million in equipment was sent off to law enforcement agencies that gained approval from the LESO.
Items used by the U.S. military range from clothing and office supplies to weapons and tactical vehicles. Only 5 percent of military surplus constitutes weaponry and less than 1 percent are tactical vehicles, according to the LESO.
To date, more than 8,000 local law enforcement agencies across the U.S. – including more than 100 on Delmarva – have enrolled in the 1033 Program.*
Every state has a coordinator that serves as a liaison for the LESO. Agencies interested in joining the 1033 Program “must register with the state law enforcement liaison,” said Greg Shipley, a Maryland State Police spokesman.
“One hundred-and-eight Maryland police agencies are registered, but only 80 currently have property from the program that is required to be inventoried,” Shipley said.
We took a humvee in there; no other vehicle could make it in there. Chief Scott Keller, Princess Anne PD
Once the agency is registered and an application is submitted, it must be approved. Basic criteria include disclosure of the agency’s primary function and whether officers have the powers of arrests and apprehension, according to the LESO.
Members of the program receive a Department of Defense Activity Address Code, which allows the office to track military property that has been given away, according to the LESO. Law enforcement agencies use a Web-based application to search and request equipment. The state coordinator must approve excess supplies.
The LESO requires law enforcement agencies to keep record of equipment that has been received. If an agency wants to transfer, turn-in or dispose of the property, approval must be granted by the LESO.
Training sessions are conducted independently among each agency.
Local Agencies with Surplus
Dozens of Delmarva law enforcement agencies have acquired humvees, rifle scopes, M16 automatic rifles, night vision goggles and armored trucks through the program.
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office and the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office secured a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, which they say could be used in the event of a mass shooting. According to an inventory list provided by the Maryland State Police, the Wicomico Sheriff’s Office has, to date, received (40) M16 automatic rifles and (10) M14 rifles, among other equipment.
The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office acquired two humvees and one 5-ton truck that was used to transport and rescue people during Hurricane Sandy, according to Somerset County Sheriff Ronald Howard. He said the humvees are useful in flooding and weather-related emergencies because of high clearance.
“Somerset County is a low-lying area and it’s naturally prone to flooding, so we decided to get it mainly for that reason,” said Howard, who stood next to the 5-ton truck and a humvee to demonstrate how high the water came during Sandy. “In case there is a severe flood, we could evacuate people from those areas.”
Howard said the county’s Department of Emergency Services requested two additional five-ton trucks after Hurricane Sandy. He said deputies are organizing a training course with the Maryland Police Training Commission. More than a dozen M16 rifles were acquired as well, Howard said.
In Wicomico County, the Fruitland Police Department is also a member of the 1033 Program. The small agency has two unused non-armor humvees and (10) M16 semi-automatic rifles. Lt. Brian Swafford said the department has had its own rifle program for 20 years, but fell short on equipment. The federal program closed that gap. He explained why the agency, which serves a town with a population of a little more than 5,000 people, needs military-style rifles.
“We have two schools in our jurisdiction, so if we were to have an occasion to respond to an active shooter situation, we would have to get the rifles out,” Swafford said. “We also have Wal-Mart and other retail areas.”
The Princess Anne Police Department in Somerset County has three humvees, Kevlar brand helmets and a mobile command center, which is set up inside a box truck. The department only has two M16 rifles, according to an inventory list from the state police.
Princess Anne Police Chief Scott Keller said the humvees and mobile command center require little maintenance. State and federal grants covered the cost to refurbish the box truck that is only used about a dozen times a year. The humvees were used during hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
“There was one rescue in particular where [officers] had to go in water waist deep to rescue a couple from their house,” Keller said. “At another [rescue], where there was water up over a bridge, somebody drove into it. We had to pull him out through a window and he was standing on the roof. We took a humvee in there; no other vehicle could make it in there.”
The department acquired a helicopter for search and rescue purposes in 2005, but Keller said it was turned in and given to Montgomery County, Md. in 2009. Keller said officers are trained to use all surplus equipment.
In Delaware, few agencies requested equipment. Delaware State Police, along with the Bridgeville, Selbyville, Georgetown and Milford police departments, acquired more surplus than other agencies, which typically have one or two non-armor vehicles.
American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union, a national organization that defends individual rights, has been vocal about the militarization of law enforcement agencies.
Meredith Curtis, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Maryland, shared concerns about the need for military surplus equipment and the presumed cost to maintain it.
“While police departments may say military equipment would only be used in an ‘emergency,’ it is clear that as military equipment has been flowing to local police departments, the definition of the ‘emergency’ required to use it has been declining all over the country, as we saw clearly, but not only, in Ferguson, Mo.,” she said. “And as police departments get the heavy equipment, which is expensive to maintain, the urge to use the equipment to justify the expense increases. Residents should question whether the hypothetical possibility of extreme emergency situations occurring in the future warrants keeping this military gear on hand.”
WBOC reached out to people living across Delmarva to get their take on militarizing law enforcement agencies. Opinions were solicited via WBOC’s Facebook page.
Tommy Riebel said: “I would feel more secure with our National Guard operating this equipment in the event of emergency. I support my local law enforcement, but I don’t see any reason for them to possess this type of military equipment.”
Chris Collins has similar reservations, saying: “The police and military are, and should be, two separate entities. Militarizing our police is not a good idea.”
Not everyone is against the federal program. In a post, Fred Besnoska said: “(It is) a great idea and saved a lot of tax dollars for taxpayers.”
Ken-Shirley Bower said: “Whatever military equipment law enforcement needs, get it!”
How do you feel about law enforcement agencies acquiring military surplus equipment? Share your thoughts below.
About the Author
Mikea Turner joined the WBOC news team in November of 2013 as a video journalist. Prior to WBOC, she was a general assignment news reporter and anchor at Prince George’s Community Television, a cable news station anchored just two hours away from Delmarva’s News Leader. Mikea graduated from Rutgers University in 2012. She majored in journalism/media studies and minored in Japanese. Prior to graduation, she interned with WUSA9 in Washington D.C., Entertainment Tonight/The Insider in New York, and served as a segment producer for Rutgers Television Network, RU-tv. Mikea is a Maryland native with roots on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She has a passion for fashion, modeling, traveling and mentoring youth. Follow her on Twitter @MikeaTurnerTV.
* Source of information for police agencies on Delmarva that have benefited from the 1033 Program : Delaware, Maryland and Virginia state police