Documents Show No One In The Defense Department Is Doing Much Vetting Of Law Enforcement Requests For Military Gear
from the capitalizing-on-perpetual,-manufactured-fear dept
We’ve covered the Defense Department’s 1033 program several times here at Techdirt. The program allows law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military gear at low, low prices in exchange for little more than their claim to need anything from filing cabinets to grenade launches to mine-resistant armored personnel carriers (MRAPs).
Thanks to the never-ending “War on Terror” and “War on Drugs,” the DoD has allowed law enforcement agencies to blur the line between serving the public and invading a war zone. Officers regularly don camouflage when rolling out of armored personnel carriers, turning warrant service into a paramilitary invasion. MRAPs tend to make appearances at protests targeting police violence, giving responding officers the appearance of an occupying force, rather than the domestic peacekeepers they’re supposed to be.
Multiple efforts have been made to curtail the acquisition of gear clearly designed for war zones, rather than domestic policing. None of those efforts have been permanent. The distribution of war gear to cops is subject to the whims of the sitting president and very few have felt too concerned about the program’s ability to widen the chasm between the public and the people who are obligated to serve them.
The Huffington Post has acquired nearly 1,200 pages of 1033 program acquisition forms via public records requests. (Unfortunately, it has decided the public will get to see them whenever it gets around to publishing them, which means it has provided no access to the underlying documents at this point.) What these show is the Defense Department rubberstamping requests for military gear (such as MRAPs) by law enforcement agencies, even when the requesting agency can barely demonstrate a need for the equipment. They also show law enforcement agencies consider the public to be their enemy — one that must be confronted with as much force as possible.
The 1,200-plus pages of documents HuffPost obtained expose the flimsy pretext that police will only use military gear in a genuine crisis — and how explicitly many police acknowledge that their goal is to intimidate vulnerable members of their communities. The requests also reveal how thoroughly many police have learned to fear the public as potential combatants, how automatically they are able to perceive everyday situations as potentially lethal, and how fervently they believe that their fear justifies extreme countermeasures for everyday conflicts. A few times, police departments even referred to their officers as “troops” or to police shifts as “tours of duty.”
The letters also reflect a disturbing comfort with — even an expectation of — using military gear and tactics to respond to civil demonstrators. Multiple agencies explicitly asked for armored vehicles to use at protests against police violence toward Black people and pipeline resistance led by Native Americans.
We’ve seen the ridiculous excuses used by law enforcement to obtain military gear. The town of Keane, New Hampshire (pop. 40,000 with a police force of 23 officers) claimed terrorists might target its annual Pumpkin Festival. A California school district was only persuaded to give up its tear gas launchers after weeks of public backlash. A two-person law enforcement agency in Michigan managed to acquire more than $1.1 million in military gear before the town caught wind of its abuse of the 1033 program.
These are just a few examples of what happens when no one in the Defense Department seems willing to vet agencies before handing out military surplus. The Huffington Post has more:
The sheriff of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, went so far as to assert that a police officer could die serving a notice of a civil lawsuit — and so his agency ought to have two armored vehicles.
One department after another described broad criteria for using an armored vehicle that bordered on cavalier: whenever police are going somewhere they believe someone could have a gun, even legally; whenever a suspect “could” become violent.
Countless departments pointed out that they were home to attractions and infrastructure that are essentially ubiquitous: turnpikes, highway overpasses, train trestles, a bus garage, hotels, a casino, hospitals and surgical centers, business parks, “abundant day care facilities” government buildings, movie theaters, amusement parks, county fairs, college sports tournaments, and minor league sports stadiums. Not one but two agencies pointed out that they should get consideration because their jurisdiction was located near the fifth-busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is the expected result of the government waging concurrent, never-ending wars. Whatever isn’t consumed by one war (Terror) can be repurposed for another (Drugs). Since we’re in no danger of winning either of these “wars” (and, indeed, seem to be losing both), the federal government’s 1033 program has become a perpetual motion machine that converts failure to funding, ensuring neither of these resources will ever be fully expended. Very few people in power dare to ask the military what it’s spending trillions of dollars on, even when there appears to be little return on investment. And since no one’s asking them tough questions, those in charge of dispensing military gear to local law enforcement agencies feel no compunction to call bullshit on ridiculous justifications for war machines that will be used to carry out standard warrant service when not being used to intimidate people exercising their First Amendment rights.