AFRICANGLOBE – The federal government shipped nearly 4,000 more assault rifles to local law enforcement agencies in the three months following the Ferguson protests, marking a huge surge in the amount of lethal firearms being doled out to police and sheriff’s offices.
The Ferguson protests drew attention and criticism to the massive firepower state and local police are now able to bring to bear on their citizens, and earned scrutiny for the Pentagon project, known as the 1033 program, that helps arm many of those agencies by making surplus military equipment available to them.
President Obama called for a review of the program, civil rights advocates said the local police had become indistinguishable from the military, and even some police departments questioned their own policies.
But an analysis of the first three months after the riots shows the program remains popular with law enforcement agencies throughout the country, though there have been some changes in the types of equipment that are now being offered.
The 3,879 rifles the Pentagon shipped was an astronomical increase over the dozen rifles shipped during the same three-month period in 2013, with several police agencies taking delivery of hundreds of rifles soon after the Ferguson protests.
Armored vehicles, which drew particular scrutiny in the protests in Ferguson and other cities, were less popular in the aftermath. The Pentagon shipped just 11 mine-resistant vehicles, or MRAPs, from Aug. 15 through Nov. 14, compared to nearly 180 in the same time period a year earlier.
Including both lethal equipment and the more mundane items such as uniforms and office supplies that make up most of the transfers, the overall number was about the same in 2014, though the dollar value of the equipment transferred — about $157 million over the three months — was down 15 percent.
In early December Mr. Obama said he would tighten standards for getting military equipment, including requiring civilian officials to authorize transfers so police aren’t acting on their own. But he did not cancel the program, nor did he ban the flow of lethal weaponry, as some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have demanded.
The furor on Capitol Hill, which erupted in August and sparked congressional hearings, has also quieted. Bills introduced in the heat of the protests will quietly die when this Congress shuts its doors in early January and a new Congress is sworn in.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes. Some districts, buckling under public pressure, have refused some of the weapons they’ve previously requested. The Los Angeles School Police Department decided it didn’t need grenade launchers, but did figure it should keep the M-16 rifles and the armored vehicle it had previously received.
Then there are the agencies that had been trying to give back equipment for some time. That was the case for Chelan County, east of Seattle, which had requested an armored truck in the late 1990s, but the Defense Department had insisted it take three massive tracked vehicles built to carry a 107-mm mortar. The extras were supposed to be good for spare parts.
The trucks had their weapons removed to make them more usable for police purposes, but even so, the sheriff’s department’s SWAT team said they weren’t working out. They were used for training but weren’t taken out on any calls because they turned out not to be as safe as the department wanted, Undersheriff John Wisemore told reporters in the wake of the Ferguson protests.
His department lent the 10-ton trucks to the local fire district in 2006, and they were converted into firefighting gear, even as the sheriff worked to try to get the Pentagon to take them back. (All unwanted equipment is supposed to be returned to the feds.)
Earlier this month, after the attention Ferguson brought to the program, the undersheriff said they’d finally gotten the transfer done. The trucks were sent to a training center in Yakima, Washington, just before Thanksgiving.
“We have gotten rid of them,” Undersheriff Wisemore said, happy to be free of 30 tons of obligation. “They are going to do whatever they want with them. We don’t care.”
The Defense Logistics Agency, which runs the 1033 program, said its Law Enforcement Support Office hasn’t seen an uptick in turn-in rates after Ferguson, and said it’s up to law enforcement agencies and the coordinator in each state charged with managing the program to make sure police are able to handle the equipment they’re getting.
As of the middle of December, the LESO had seven requests for vehicles to be turned back in and one request for a vehicle to be transferred, said spokeswoman Mimi Schirmacher. The agency also had nine requests to turn weapons back in to the Pentagon.
“This rate of turn-ins is not considered out of the ordinary,” Ms. Schirmacher said.
What has risen is the number of weapons being transferred out — for example, that huge spike in rifles. Ms. Schirmacher said that was because a moratorium on weapons transfers between agencies expired last fall, and then this August — coincidentally, the same month as the initial Ferguson protests — the Pentagon itself began issuing weapons again.
“This has created a high demand for both new requests for weapons as well as transfer requests,” the spokeswoman said.
A Rifle For Every Officer
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources was one of the agencies that took advantage of the end of the moratorium, receiving shipment of 415 M-16 rifles in November.
Each of the department’s 256 law enforcement officers was outfitted with one of the rifles, and another 39 were dedicated to training or as backup weapons in the state’s 11 DNR districts, according to spokeswoman Debbie Munson Badini.
“They all work in pretty remote locations out of their homes, so that’s why they would each be outfitted with a rifle,” she said. “They each need their own.”
Ms. Badini said the Ferguson situation had no effect on their decision-making, and that the rifles became available just as the department was trying to move from higher-caliber M1A rifles to the lower-caliber M-16s, so it made sense to take them.
She said the rifles are being retrofitted to make them unable to fire in automatic or burst mode, so by the time their officers get them, the rifles will be only able to fire as semiautomatics.
In addition to the rifles kept for the department, the Michigan office accepted another 120 rifles on behalf of local police and sheriff’s departments. Ms. Badini said having them all shipped from the federal government to one agency saved money for the state.
But the joint order creates a problem for civil liberties groups, reporters and other watchdogs trying to track who got what from the government.
In another example from the latest data, the sheriff’s office in Williamson County, Tennessee, took a shipment of 327 M-16s in October, but just 40 of those were for the department itself. Instead, it acted as the state’s clearinghouse for rifles, which were distributed among 15 other police and sheriff’s departments.
A spokeswoman for the state coordinator’s office said the state didn’t have a secure area with enough racks to store that many rifles, so they had them sent to the sheriff in Williamson instead. State officials processed the weapons in Williamson County, took pictures of each rifle and then distributed them. The spokeswoman said they retain the records so someone could find out the rifles’ final destination from them.
The White House, in its December review of the program, concluded that only 4 percent of the equipment the Pentagon doled out last year was considered “controlled property.” That still amounted to 78,000 pieces of controlled property in one year, and about 460,000 pieces have been sent to local law enforcement throughout the life of the program, the White House said.
Faced with those numbers, the president’s review called for changes.
The Pentagon agreed to notify the Justice Department when a local law enforcement agency applies for the program, as well as when an agency has been suspended or kicked out of the program. Over the last five years, 11 agencies had been kicked out, including five in Arizona that were banned under the recommendation of the state’s own coordinator, and four that were terminated because they lost weapons.
Meanwhile, the White House recommended that agencies that choose to take part in federal military equipment programs — the 1033 program is one of several — have policies to make sure their agents and officers are trained in using the equipment and in respecting civil liberties.
Any incident that involves federally funded or provided equipment must be reported back to federal officials, the White House said.
By: Stephen Dinan