Law enforcement officers clad in military-style body armor and equipped with powerful firearms line the streets enveloped by smoke. Billows of tear gas rise up from the black pavement and swirl around, encompassing anything and anyone in its relentless path. The heavily armed officers ready their weapons and stand guard. But this is not a war zone. These are not military soldiers and this is not taking place overseas. There was no act of terrorism. This is modern day America.
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by the hand of a Ferguson, Mo. police officer Aug. 9 spurred many nights of protests and looting in the city, resulting in the extensive broadcast of images depicting heavily armored police officers clashing with civilians.
Since then, President Barack Obama has called for a review of policies like the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (DoD 1033) that have put military equipment like rifles, night-vision goggles and armored vehicles in the hands of local police and sheriff’s departments across the country.
Ultimately, police “militarization” has become a buzzword used by some who think it sheds a negative light on police officers outfitted like soldiers ready for military combat.
The 411 on 1033
According to the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the intent of the congressionally mandated Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), the facilitators of the DoD 1033 Program, is to assist state and federal law enforcement agencies in crime fighting and protecting citizens.
The DLA’s website states the 1033 Program has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property since its inception, and in 2013 alone, $449,309,003.71 worth of property was transferred to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States and its territories.
“LESO transfers of excess DOD personal property cover the full range of items used by the government: office equipment, blankets and sleeping bags, computers, digital cameras, individual clothing and equipment, aircraft, boats, vehicles and weapons,” Tonya Johnson, a Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman, told Lagniappe in a written response.
The program was authorized by Congress through Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 1990-1991 to authorize the transfer of excess Department of Defense personal property to federal and state agencies for use in counter-drug activities. Later, Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 1996-1997 authorized the transfer of excess DOD personal property to federal and state agencies in the execution of law enforcement activities to include counter-terrorism activities as well as counter-drug activities.
Law enforcement agencies must meet certain criteria to be accepted into the program and all requests for property are initially screened locally at the law enforcement agency, then by a state coordinator and finally by LESO, Johnson wrote.
State coordinators screen all law enforcement agencies for participation in the program and LESO personnel independently validate both state and federal law enforcement agencies.
The state coordinators, who are appointed by the governors of their respective states, must have a plan of operation detailing how they will remain compliant with the 1033 Program’s guidance, policies and procedures.
The DLA says each individual agency must also pay for shipping the items as well as potential storage costs. All excess DOD property is shipped “as is,” and each agency acquiring equipment is responsible for training its personnel in the proper use, maintenance and repair of the DOD property assigned to it.
Though negatively portrayed images of armored police officers have surfaced due to the recent events in Ferguson, local law enforcement agencies believe obtaining equipment through the DoD 1033 Program is actually beneficial, important for officer safety and cost efficient for their respective departments.
Militarization vs. Modernization
Just as technology has advanced over the years, so has tactical weaponry. Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran says the sophisticated gear and weapons used by law enforcement are needed to stay up to date and to successfully apprehend today’s savvy criminals.
“During all this time, as law enforcement may appear to be more militarized, look at what the criminals have done,” he said. “Criminals have gone from carrying .38 pistols in the ‘60s and ‘70s to carrying 9mm [pistols] in the ‘80s and gradually upgrading to .40 calibers. They started carrying assault rifles in the ‘90s and 2000s, so law enforcement had to say ‘look, we need to at least be armed equally or just a little bit more than the people we face.’”
Maj. Anthony Lowery of the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office said the BCSO has not really participated in the 1033 Program since he has been involved with the department, but he believes militarization and modernization are two completely different ideas that are often misinterpreted.
Like Cochran, Lowery said “the bad guy” is continually changing tactics and weapons, and criminals are now arming themselves with AK-47 assault rifles and the like.
“I don’t like the term militarization,” he said. “We prefer to call it modernization. I think a lot of people confuse modernizing with militarizing the police force.”
When speaking on Ferguson, Cochran said the repellant material, fire retardant riot gear, helmets and masks donned by Ferguson police was necessary as protesters threw Molotov cocktails and water bottles filled with urine at officers.
“Every bit of what you see is not offensive,” he said. “It may look offensive, but every bit of that is for the safety of the officer. The only thing that’s really offensive is the weapon in his hand, or the sidearm, which every officer wears at his side anyhow. It’s all protective material for the officer so he can go home at night,” Cochran said.
Weighing the pros and cons
While bulky, armored vehicles, assault rifles and night-vision goggles may seem arbitrary in small-town America, the counties of Fairhope, Baldwin and Mobile have received equipment they see fit for serving their respective communities.
“The 1033 program has been a big help,” Fairhope Police Sgt. Craig Sawyer said. “There would be no way to afford boats out of our budget, but having surplus boats of military quality that didn’t cost anything was a big benefit.”
Fairhope police used the acquired boats to respond to boaters in distress, patrol the bay and have a presence in the water during large-scale events like Fourth of July, he said.
However, Sawyer also said a lot of the equipment Fairhope obtained through the 1033 Program has since been disposed of or given away to other agencies due to high insurance costs.
“Fully insuring some of the vehicles for limited use was not feasible,” he said.
Therefore, the boats were given to the Fairhope Volunteer Fire Department, where they are still utilized if needed. Fairhope also received trucks classified in the M35 family, commonly known as the “deuce-and-a-half,” which were initially deployed by the U.S. Army.
“Imagine Point Clear during a hurricane,” Sawyer said. “We need a vehicle with deep-water capability to evacuate families and get out. The trucks are capable of going through five to six feet of water.”
Currently, BCSO has three “deuce-and-a-half” trucks while MCSO has four available if there is ever a need for a high-water rescue.
According to the DLA, life-saving equipment obtained through the LESO program was used by police departments in Rye, N.Y. during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and in southern Illinois after a tornado hit Nov. 18, 2013.
While Sawyer said Fairhope has never had armored cars and does not see the need in Fairhope, the sheriff’s department in Baldwin County recently garnered much attention after purchasing an armored vehicle with money reportedly seized from drug deals.
Lowery said the vehicle is “purely defensive” and is not equipped with armament like tear gas or grenade launchers.
By purchasing a demo version, Lowery said the department also saved a lot of money.
“In relation to Ferguson, maybe the timing was not great, but it was a good investment money-wise,” Lowery said. “If we would have had it in the floods in April, we would have deployed it then.”
Lowery said the BCSO was further incentivized to purchase the vehicle, a Lenco Bearcat G3, ahead of the National Tactical Officers Association’s annual conference, which coincidentally, is being hosted in Mobile starting Sept. 21.
According to MPD spokeswoman Ashley Rains, MPD has received two armored Hummer Humvees from the 1033 Program.
The DLA requires law enforcement agencies to meet criteria including justification for use of the vehicle, such as in response to active shooter incidents, SWAT operations and drug interdiction; geographical area and multi-jurisdiction use; ability of the agency to pay for repairs and maintenance of the vehicle; and security and restricted access to the vehicle.
But it is not just assault rifles, military-style body gear and armored vehicles that come from the program, Cochran said.
“Some of it’s just government equipment that’s surplus,” he said.
According to Cochran, MCSO received office products including pens, paper and envelopes, bedding material like the blankets used at the Mobile County Metro Jail, miscellaneous work boots used by jail trustees, life vests for the flotilla and extension cords.
“The most beneficial [aspect] from the program is that it saves the county a lot of money and it saves the city a lot of money,” Cochran said. “It saved us a lot of money. It saved the taxpayers a lot of money.”
Special Weapons and Tactics
Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT units, are commonly used law enforcement teams trained to use military-style weapons. Cochran said the military-style weapons received through the 1033 Program are “semi-automatic, but you can buy a kit, or either they come with a kit, that will make them automatic again.”
He went on to say that the MCSO SWAT team uses automatic weapons whether they are received through the 1033 Program or bought commercially.
“Our SWAT team has automatic weapons,” he said. “We would never issue an automatic weapon to a deputy at this point in time, but our special weapons and tactics people, we do. And of course, they’re trained in it. We have firearms instructors that are certified in teaching to shoot the automatic weapons. We also have those who are certified to work on the weapons.”
In Fairhope, Sawyer said a SWAT team has not been active for a couple of years due to budget issues and costs associated with the continual training required for such a unit. Also due to lack of budget, most of the equipment used by Fairhope’s mothballed SWAT unit was personally owned, Sawyer said.
Rifles were personally purchased and individually owned by officers, while tactical vests were donated to the unit. Bulletproof vests, he noted, are only guaranteed for five years before they expire and have to be replaced.
Meanwhile, the BCSO SWAT team has been on-call since around 1990, Lowery said.
“They are all certified and complete the Alabama Peace Officer Training,” he said.
According to Cochran, the MCSO may use its SWAT team to neutralize hostage situations, to extract barricaded suspects, to stop suicide threats and serve arrest warrants on known violent offenders that they fully expect will resist.
“Because of their protective gear, they’re the ones that can get up closer,” he said.
While Cochran said the MCSO does not have SWAT officers patrolling on a routine basis, SWAT teams may be used to serve warrants to high-risk individuals, who may have already been charged with murders, served jail time and/or have a previous record involving shootings or assaults.
“I’m sure there are situations where after the fact, looking back, hindsight is 20/20, that maybe OK, it may have been overkill, but if we’re going to err, we’re going to err in safety for the officers,” he said.
What about Ferguson?
In relation to the uproar in Ferguson, local officials believe similar situations have and will be handled differently here on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
“If we had rioting and unrest, and not protest — there’s a clear difference — breaking in the stores and storefronts, we’d be putting people in jail the first night it happened,” Cochran said. “We would not stand idly by for that. We would listen to the protesters [and] hear them out. We would hope that we’ve done more in our community to build trust that when something does happen that does appear to be outlandish … that we’ve built enough trust to say ‘hey, give us enough time so we can give you some information,’ but we’re going to put out information pretty quick, which was not done in [Ferguson], so I think we would be different here.”
MCSO spokeswoman Lori Myles added that community policing plays a major role in building trust with the community to hopefully prevent riots and distrust in law enforcement in Mobile County.
The general consensus between local law enforcement agencies suggests that law enforcement must be adequately armed to protect and serve their communities, regardless of whether that armor is surplus military equipment or not.
Situations may arise and officials believe that law enforcement agencies need to be prepared at all times, while keeping safety at the forefront.
“Keep in mind we’re still in Baldwin County, but everything that happens everywhere else can and does happen in Baldwin County, “ Lowery said. “Our people deserve to be as safe as they can so they can return to their families at the end of the day.”
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.