The images coming out of Ferguson, Mo., in the last few days have been harrowing, and one element in particular has shocked those watching the events unfold. American law enforcement decked out in military fatigues, patrolling the streets in armored vehicles that look like they were plucked out of Afghanistan or Iraq.
And the thing is, they very well might have been. The Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments have both received equipment from the U.S. military through what’s known as the 1033 program, a federal program that the American Civil Liberties Union says has been a key catalyst to the broader escalation of law enforcement force in the United States.
The 1033 program, which was approved by Congress in 1992 to help law enforcement fight the war on drugs and was expanded in 1997, allows police departments to request and receive refurbished military equipment from the U.S. Defense Department free of charge. That equipment can range from night vision googles to military-grade firearms and armored vehicles. The ACLU estimated in June 2014 that 500 MRAP vehicles, built to withstand roadside bombs, are now in the hands of American law enforcement.
Ferguson and St. Louis County, which has taken the lead in addressing the protests since the Saturday police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, have obtained equipment through the 1033 program. David Mastio reported for USA Today that Ferguson police had received two vehicles, a trailer and a generator through the program in November 2013. Newsweek reported Thursday that the St. Louis County police had been given nine utility trucks and two cargo trailers since 2012.
TPM has requested further information from the Defense Logistics Agency, which administers the 1033 program. The agency stated on its website that nearly $450 million worth of equipment were distributed nationwide in 2013.
“It’s a culture of militarism. We determined that the police in America have become excessively militarized,” Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU, told TPM. The organization released a report on police militarization in June 2012. “It’s dangerous because it undermines public trust in law enforcement. It makes it difficult for them to effectively police their communities.”
“It certainly plays a significant role,” Danksy added of the 1033 program. And another ACLU finding seems particularly resonant in the wake of Ferguson, sparked by the shooting of an African-American teen and confrontations between a largely white police force and a black community.
According to the group’s analysis of 800 SWAT deployments, minority groups are disproportionately the target of these military-style units. The report concluded that more than 50 percent of the people impacted in the deployments it analyzed were black or Latino.
Protester Janelle Pittman holds her 6-year-old daughter, Kat, as police in riot gear stand guard in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson).
Police in Ferguson have defended the tactics and equipment used in confrontations with protesters. The Associated Press, among others, have reported of gunfire directed at officers, stones being thrown and protesters attempting to light Molotov cocktails to throw at police, which police cited as part of the need for the equipment.
“People have bombs now,” Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson told reporters Wednesday when asked about the military-style equipment.
The images from Ferguson have already brought increased scrutiny and questions about the 1033 program specifically and the general militarization of American law enforcement. More than 17,000 agencies participate in the program, the ACLU reported. “This is America, not a war zone,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted Thursday.
But part of the problem with the program, according to the ACLU, is a lack of transparency and oversight. Few restrictions are placed on what equipment law enforcement can request or how they use it. The organization concluded that the only significant restriction placed on departments is that they not sell whatever equipment they receive. In fact, departments are required to use the equipment that they receive within one year, which Dansky said could actually incentive the use of the equipment even when it’s unnecessary.
“The program contains a built-in incentive,” she said. “As these local police departments receive this equipment, there are no meaningful constraints on their ability to use it.”
“If all you have is a hammer,” she added, “everything looks like a nail.”
And the 1033 program isn’t the only program that’s contributed to police militarization, Dansky added. The Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program annually provides up to $500 million toward local law enforcement, some of which is spent on the same kind of equipment funneled to police departments by the 1033 program. The nearly $1 billion Homeland Security grant program also helps pay for military-style gear, though Danksky cautioned that it is difficult to determine how much of the total funding goes toward this kind of equipment.
A device deployed by police goes off in the street as police and protesters clash Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson).
One other element seems particularly relevant to the events in Ferguson. The 1033 program and other federal funding streams for military gear has been particularly instrumental in militarizing smaller law enforcement agencies like Ferguson and St. Louis County. Urban departments are more likely to have already obtained this kind of equipment. But 1033 and these other programs have made them available to almost any department that wants them.
“I have heard police officers say that there is no way small police departments would have access to this kind of weaponry were it not for the 1033 program and other federal funding streams,” Dansky said.
But with the events in Ferguson, more scrutiny could be coming to the 1033 program and its counterparts. Public officials ranging from the liberal Warren to tea party favorite Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) have condemned the tactics being deployed in the last few days. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) has now introduced legislation that would ban some high-grade equipment like the bomb-resistant MRAP vehicles and require more rigorous oversight by the Defense Department.
The images coming out of Ferguson could be critical in instigating the debate. Dansky and others have noted that police militarization dates back to the 1980s. But the prevalence of social media and its ability to share the kind of images that caused TPM’s Josh Marshall to ask “Ferguson or Fallujah” have made the issue more difficult to ignore.
“It has become increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to distinguish between law enforcement officers on the ground,” Dansky said, “and soldiers fighting overseas.”