On Tuesday, Obama administration officials testified that local police who received surplus military equipment from a government program were never supposed to use that equipment for riot control and if the items were misused, cities may be forced to repay millions in grants given them by the government to purchase the equipment.
The testimony was delivered before Congress by members of the Defense and Homeland Security departments on Tuesday afternoon in a hearing that was spurred by shocking images from Ferguson, Missouri where police used a variety of military-styled equipment to quell rioting last month. Local police obtained some of that surplus military equipment through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program.
During the hearing Senators pointed out that many departments have been given equipment that they really have no legitimate need for. During the hearing it was revealed that one small Oklahoma county sheriff’s department for instance, received two 18-ton MRAP armored vehicles even though the department has only one full-time peace officer.
Several Senators questioned just why local police need military equipment at all. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul noted that 12,000 bayonets have been given out to local police and he wondered why a weapon of war like that, one used solely for killing and not peacekeeping, needed to be placed in the hands of a police department.
“What’s President Obama’s administration’s position of handing out bayonets to the police force?” Paul asked. “You guys create the list. You gonna take it off the list?”
Administration officials demurred from detailing what items they may take off the list but noted that they have already determined that some surplus items are not eligible for the 1033 Program.
Obama officials did tell the Senate committee that they were reviewing the 1033 Program to determine if such military equipment as machine guns, body armor, SWAT-styled devices, and armored vehicles were actually necessary for a civilian police force.
At one point, Brian Kamoie of the Federal Emergency Management Agency made the surprising claim that military equipment obtained under the 1033 program was never supposed to be used for riot suppression and cities that have done so could be forced to repay millions to the federal government.
“We have a range of remedies should [the DOJ] find non-compliance, including recoupment of fund,” Kamoie said as he went on to say that using the equipment for riot control violated the government contract cities signed when joining the 1033 Program.
It is unclear exactly what rule Kamoie was talking about, but a look at one example of the contract does seem to state that military surplus is intended to be used only for counterdrug/counterterrorism efforts.
On page two of the 1033 contract signed by the State of Minnesota in 2008, for example, it notes that the equipment should be “used by such agencies in law enforcement activities, with emphasis on counterdrug/counterterrorism activities.”
The term “counterdrug/counterterrorism” is used repeatedly in the contract and is obviously a main reason for the transfer of the surplus military property.
However, another section on page 3 may seem contradictory. The contract says, the property will be approved for use “in the following priority: counterdrug/counterterrorism and then any other law enforcement activities.”
This clause may give police agencies the idea they can use the equipment for whatever they want. And if Ferguson, Missouri is any indication, some police agencies seem to assume that riot control is a legitimate use of this military surplus.
As an example of how some local police assume they can use the property, the Greenville News reported that the Greenville County, South Carolina Sheriff said that the property he received from the 1033 Program would be “used in the event of a riot or civil disturbance.”
It is unlikely that many police departments that have received this surplus equipment think there are any restrictions on its use.
It is unknown if any police department has been informed under what circumstances use of surplus military equipment is not allowed.
Another more ominous clause in the Minnesota contract demands that local police put the property into use within a year after taking possession or be forced to return the items.
Under the “Utilization of Property” section the contract tells police departments that “Property received through the 1033 Program must be placed into use within one year of receipt and utilized for a minimum of one year… If property is not placed in use within one year of receipt, it must be transferred to another authorized agency, or returned.”
This could account for why police departments seem so eager to use the military equipment in situations that do not warrant such use.