The Obama administration issued an executive order from law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and New York to small cities like Benbrook, Texas, telling agencies to return a variety of federal surplus military equipment by Friday, April 1.
The order was a response to the public outrage and concern about the “militarization” of law enforcement agencies during events like Ferguson and Baltimore.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force,” President Barack Obama said last year as he announced the recall. “As opposed to a force that’s part of the community, that’s protecting and serving them.”
The order gives a “prohibited equipment list” of items that law enforcement agencies will not be able to receive, keep or transfer. The prohibited items include tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, large caliber weapons and ammunition, weaponized vehicles, vessels and aircraft.
Many agencies haven’t had a problem complying with the order, but to retired police chief Bill Mathis and others, the orders were frustrating.
Mathis served over 30 years in Oklahoma law enforcement and said the order to return equipment left departments without some of the tools they need to effectively combat terrorism and mass shootings.
“Police have to protect themselves,” Mathis said. “When things like Paris happen, we have to be ready for them. We have to make sure that our law enforcement has the equipment needed to go into those types of situations.”
A paramilitary problem
Federal programs like the 1033 Program allow the Secretary of Defense to transfer excess Department of Defense (DOD) property to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies free of charge.
According to a White House Report, since 1990 the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) has given excess military equipment to approximately 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies nationwide. This added up to $5.1 billion in total property, and $2.7 billion in the last five years.
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, federal departments viewed the police as critical assets to fighting terrorism. As the conflict escalated overseas and mass shootings across the nation rose, there was little criticism about police officers receiving militarized gear.
However, after incidents like August of 2013 when Arlington, Texas SWAT officers stormed through the Garden of Eden organic farm in armored vehicles, all-black body armor, carrying shields and assault rifles, concerns about heavy-handed police tactics using this gear came under scrutiny.
Then came Ferguson.
When the town of Ferguson, Missouri flooded with rioters in the fall of 2014, the protesters were met by police officers wearing military grade gear and camouflage, equipped with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets and more.
During the protests in 2014, Obama ordered a review of the military equipment program by a panel of experts, including the head of the Defense Homeland Security and Justice Departments. The panel’s review stated the government failed to properly oversee the 1033 Program.
A dual purpose
On the other hand, some local officials said equipment acquired through the 1033 Program have helped small departments in more ways than one.
The majority of equipment given out through the 1033 Program since 1990 is conventional. According to the Texas state property book, equipment like general office supplies are the majority of equipment received. The items included office furniture, first aid kits, storage containers and lockers that haven’t been recalled.
Mathis said in large cities like Dallas, the equipment received through the 1033 Program allow police to respond and improve in areas of high criminal activity.
“It’s a constant effort on departments to improve things, like in Dallas, where the chief had a certain area that had robberies,” Mathis said. “A lot of departments don’t have the budget to get that type of equipment. Our first tactical van was an old bread truck that we revamped. We were trying to make do and later one we acquired that equipment.”
Bryan Jamison, a Fort Worth police officer, also said the equipment is helpful in ways that don’t involve civil unrest and terrorism. He said they include training exercises, hostage situations, and search-and-rescue operations.
Fort Worth said the majority of the equipment remains tucked away for serious situations, but the department utilizes similar equipment in a reality-based training system, Jamison added.
“We can simulate a school shooting where we can simulate an active shooter inside of a school, or anywhere for that matter, “ Jamison said. “We use it a lot for situational stuff to prepare a new officer or recruit officer – to put them in the environment, immerse them in it and get them as close as we possibly can to real life.”