Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Nov. 1, 2016 —
No program in the Defense Logistics Agency touches as many people as the congressionally established law enforcement support program, and none has gotten more media and public attention.
Natural disasters, lives saved and people rescued — along with the infrequent and tragic loss of life — have all played a role in shaping the program and how it is viewed by the public.
So too has the coverage by the news media — coverage that has sometimes contained inaccuracies about the origins of the program and the equipment it includes.
A LITTLE HISTORY
DLA did not invent the program.
The program is based on Section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, with 8,000 law enforcement agencies active in the program today.
The first decade of the modern “1033 program” was fairly quiet. Initially, it was operated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense before being handed off to DLA headquarters and finally coming to Battle Creek, Michigan, where what was then the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service — now DLA Disposition Services — was already managing reuse of excess military property. The program is now implemented by the Law Enforcement Support Office.
For several years the LESO team and its implementation of Congress’s 1033 program received little notice in the media. As word spread about the program, law enforcement agencies began to use to the program more often — especially after the recession started to reduce their limited budgets.
There was a scattering of stories and inquiries about agencies acquiring what critics felt were unusual items or excessive amounts of property. Some raised questions about how it was being used.
But public interest ran in the background, and almost all news about the program was neutral and remained local until May 2009.
INCREASED MEDIA INTEREST
Then the Boston Globe reported that its hometown had acquired 200 M-16 rifles. Follow-up Globe stories cited objections to arming large numbers of police officers with military firearms. Then the Globe published a statewide town-by-town listing of firearms allocated by the 1033 program across Massachusetts.
Other New England media outlets soon reported the Boston story. More and more media asked DLA for information on what had been allocated in their region or community.
Statewide media in California and Texas followed suit, and soon the phrase “police militarization” became common in the news.
Public interest grew along with program participation.
Then the Associated Press undertook a nationwide review, in which a team of AP writers made multiple requests for records of what the program had allocated. They interviewed sources in multiple states. “Little restraint in military giveaways to program” was the headline for one AP story at the end of July 2013.
Over 1,400 daily U.S. newspapers are AP members, along with thousands of radio and TV stations. So that AP story led to newspapers and broadcasters across the country wanting details on what LESO had provided law enforcement in their region or circulation areas.
The AP story came right on the heels of a book by journalist Radley Balko called “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” It covered the law enforcement support program, and the “1033 program” was mentioned specifically six times in the 249 pages.
In June 2014 The American Civil Liberties Union published a study titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It too made multiple references to the 1033 program.
In the summer of 2014, a record number of law enforcement agencies were active customers of the program, and media interest continued to grow. Commentaries and national and international news coverage and blogs were part of the daily reading matter at DLA Headquarters and for the LESO staff at DLA Disposition Services.
August 2014 saw a major turning point in coverage of the program, as the media focused on unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
Live coverage showed police officers in military-style uniforms. They wore military-style gear over their uniforms. They carried rifles that looked like current military carbines. One police officer sat on a military style armored truck watching a crowd through a rifle sight.
Ferguson quieted eventually, but scrutiny of the law enforcement support program was just beginning.
Around 300 news media queries about the law enforcement support program came to DLA in the month following the shooting in Ferguson. A public affairs official at DLA Head-quarters said the volume of queries on a single subject had exceeded the total number of media queries on all subjects the agency had handled in the entire year before.
The questions were not about the circumstances of the death that sparked the protests. No military-style equipment had been involved in that shooting.
It did not matter that the small Ferguson Police Department itself had received only two Humvees, a generator and a flatbed trailer from LESO. It did not matter that the armored truck prominent in images of the unrest was a commercial armored truck not issued by LESO.
Based on thousands of news queries and subsequent news stories, what ended up mattering were the concerns about how civilian law enforcement officers were responding to all kinds of situations around the country. Military-style gear, sometimes actual gear obtained through the 1033 program, became a common element of images and videos of police activities. In some cases, the concerns were for safety for both the public and law enforcement officers. In many the concern boiled down to “police militarization.”
CONGRESS RECONSIDERS ITS PROGRAM
Between the AP story, the Balko book and the ACLU report, the staff of the LESO had already been responding to numerous requests for information about their program and its system of controls for months before the events of August 2014. After Ferguson, that demand intensified and soon included requests from both committees and individual members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Similar were the requests for information from the most senior levels of the military and civilian chain of command.
Congress held two hearings to take another look at the very program it had created and required Department of Defense to implement.
On Sept. 9, 2014, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on “Oversight of Federal Programs for Equipping State and Local Law Enforcement.”
Then on Nov. 13, 2014, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on “The Department of Defense Excess Property Program in Support of U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies: An Overview of DoD Authorities, Roles, Responsibilities, and Implementation of Section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.”
Although both hearings included a robust discussion of the program from all perspectives, neither led to legislation that required or permitted changes to the program.
WORKING GROUP REFORMS
However, the LESO staff was providing information and statistics that would become part of a report issued in December 2014 by the White House, called Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition.
One of its recommendations was a presidential executive order to move ahead on increased coordination between all parts of the federal governmental dealing with state and local law enforcement agencies. Executive Order 13688 was the result, issued in January 2015. It created the Law Enforcement Working Group, of which DoD was a member, with the involvement of DLA LESO.
In May 2015, the working group issued 24 pages of recommendations in its 50-page report.
The recommendations covered four broad areas: the definitions of prohibited or controlled equipment; policies, training and protocols for controlled equipment; the acquisition process for controlled equipment; and oversight, compliance and implementation.
The prohibited equipment list identified categories of equipment that should not be authorized for LEAs to acquire with federal funds or through the 1033 program.
Of seven items on that list, only three had been allocated to law enforcement agencies under the 1033 program. Those were armored vehicles that use tracks instead of wheels, grenade launchers and bayonets. After the working group recommendations were accepted, the 1033 program undertook a recall of those items.
The tracked vehicles were all variants of the Cold War-era M-133 armored personnel carriers, and 126 were returned. The grenade launchers were all Vietnam-era M-79 single shot firearms, and 138 were returned. The bayonets were effectively heavy-duty knives with a single blade several inches long, that could be carried in a sheath or attached to the ends of some rifles. Law enforcement agencies returned 1,623 bayonets.
The recommended controlled equipment list included several kinds of equipment the program had allocated to law enforcement, including fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, Humvees and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs. Law enforcement agencies can retain those they have and other controlled items by meeting justification and approval criteria.
The Policies, Training, and Protocols for Controlled Equipment section of the recommendations contained serval areas relating to recordkeeping, training and after-action reviews program participants will have to follow.
The Acquisition Process for Controlled Equipment section also included areas affecting the 1033 program. One requires law enforcement agencies to include evidence that the agency’s civilian governing body reviewed and approved or concurred in the acquisition of controlled items.
A section on transfer, sale, return and disposal of controlled equipment included several areas that govern what law enforcement agencies can do with the equipment when they no long want or need it, and specified the situations that would require the agency to come to the LESO for guidance or approval.
The final major section of recommendations dealt with oversight, compliance and implementation, and also touched on 1033 program operations in several areas. It also put the word “Permanent” in front of the name of the Law Enforcement Working Group to continue coordinated federal review of management of controlled property.
THE PROGRAM TODAY
Carlos Torres has run LESO since November 2012. He spent several weeks at DLA headquarters during the time the working group wrote its recommendations, coordinating that activity with senior DLA and DoD officials.
“The program is better today as a result of the oversight measures, controls and transparency we have implemented in recent years,” Torres said. “Those improvements extend up and down, and with local civil authority approval now required there is local, state and federal oversight — so the public can learn about what’s going on at all levels of the program.”
“We’re also working hard to educate participating law enforcement agencies through their state coordinators so they understand what they have to do meet the oversight and accountability requirements,” Torres said.
Information about items currently allocated to law enforcement down to the local level is available on the DLA website.
“And to bolster transparency at the front end of the process, people can also access online lists of controlled items that law enforcement agencies have requested on the same part of the DLA public webpage,” Torres said.
“There are people alive today who might have died if local law enforcement agencies didn’t have equipment they got from the 1033 program on hand the moment an emergency occurred,” said DLA Disposition Services Director Mike Cannon. “The recent changes to property controls and procedures are intended to help maintain that response capability while speaking to the concerns of those who want to avoid militarization of civil society.”
links for More information
Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition:
Law Enforcement Working Group Recommendations Report:
Executive Order 13688: