Military Posture? A police officer watches over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/ / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — Local US police departments like the embattled one in Ferguson, Missouri, look more like elite military units, in large part because of the United States Congress.
In the early 1990s, lawmakers made it easier for local law enforcement agencies to acquire military grade items via something very familiar to the US defense sector: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Another source of funds that has helped local law enforcement agencies acquire military-like gear is a Department of Homeland Security grant program established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Congress has repeatedly blessed that program.
Lawmakers easily approved the 1991 NDAA, which included section 1208. That provision was titled “transfer of excess personal property” and was intended to help in that decade’s “war on drugs.”
The section allowed the defense secretary to “transfer to federal and state agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the secretary determines is … (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.”
That 1991 provision mandated that any US military equipment shipped to localities be done so “without cost to the recipient agency.”
Newsweek reported the 1991 provision on Wednesday.
The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) oversees the transfer program via its Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). The office published a newsletter in October 2011 featuring this tagline: “from warfighter to crimefighter.”
Security experts took to cable news and Twitter on Wednesday night to question whether such programs have gone too far. Some said the Ferguson police were acting too much like soldiers and too little like local police officers.
In 1997, the Section 1208 became the Section 1033 program. But its overall reason for being did not change.
“This law allows for the office to transfer excess Department of Defense property to law enforcement agencies across the United States and its territories,” states a LESO summary of its mission on its official, taxpayer-funded website.
Language on LESO’s website offers a hint about why the images on cable news look more like Ukraine, Cairo or Islamic State-occupied towns in northern Iraq than a suburb in the US heartland.
The office boasts that since its creation, the 1033 program has seen “more than $4.3 billion worth of property” transferred from the military to local law enforcement entities.
“In 2013 alone, $449,309,003.71 worth of property was transferred to law enforcement,” according to the site.
A June American Civil Liberties Union report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” concluded that the 1033 program includes “more than 17,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies from all U.S. states and territories.”
“The amount of military equipment being used by local and state police agencies has increased dramatically — the value of property transferred through the program went from $1 million in 1990 to $324 million in 1995 and to nearly $450 million in 2013,” ACLU concluded.
ACLU’s research showed local entities have received armored personnel carriers (APCs), stun grenades, battering rams and other military items from the transfer program.
As police clad in, armed with and riding in military gear were clashing Wednesday night with protesters in the St. Louis suburb, the LESO website continued to prominently feature language encouraging other local agencies to join 1033.
“If your law enforcement agency chooses to participate,” LESO states, “it may become one of the more than 8,000 participating agencies to increase its capabilities, expand its patrol coverage, reduce response times, and save the American taxpayer’s investment.”
The ACLU and others question what they call “militarized policing.”
“Our analysis shows that the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a “warrior” mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs.”
The organization found that many local entities use transferred military items to arm their SWAT teams.
“The use of a SWAT team to” conduct local law enforcement functions “essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics,” states the ACLU report.
The June report ominously foreshadowed many of the scenes playing out in Ferguson.
“Police militarization can result in tragedy for both civilians and police officers, escalate the risks of needless violence, cause the destruction of personal property, and undermine civil liberties,” the ACLU wrote. “Significantly, the militarization of American policing has been allowed to occur in the absence of public discourse or oversight.”
But one defense-sector insider says such worries are overblown.
“Military equipment typically is too lethal and too expensive to suit the needs of local law enforcement,” says Loren Thompson, Lexington Institute COO and consultant to weapons manufacturers.
“A few companies like Sierra Nevada and Exelis are working to bring military reconnaissance capabilities to the homefront, but the idea of equipping police departments with combat gear for riot control will get a chilly reception from politicians and proponents of civil liberties alike.”
Research conducted by the ACLU, Newsweek and other organizations, however, suggests that is well underway.
Thompson said it is unlikely that the unrest in the Missouri town will increase the demand from local law enforcement entities to purchase military grade gear directly from arms manufacturers.
“Compared with the Defense Department, the state and local market for military gear is small and fragmented,” Thompson said. “Most companies aren’t interested in pursuing opportunities there beyond simple things that can be sold in quantity such as radios or information services.” ■