Davis police picked up a hulking, $689,000 armored vehicle at no cost in recent weeks. Sacramento police got two helicopters, one used for spare parts. The Placer County Sheriff’s Office has obtained about 50 rifles, tourniquets, boots and an old armored car that it no longer uses.
All of the equipment has come to these law enforcement agencies and others throughout the region for free, part of a years-old federal program that allows the Defense Department to dole out excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies for use in combating drug trafficking or other crimes.
More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide have acquired equipment ranging from aircraft to office supplies to weapons through what the Defense Logistics Agency calls its “1033 Program.” Law enforcement officials say the program helps their cash-strapped agencies obtain expensive and valuable assets to bolster anti-crime efforts.
Civil libertarians and others question whether the federal government hand-me-downs are needlessly adding to the military nature of some police departments. The ongoing strife in Ferguson, Mo., between heavily armored police units and street protesters is drawing new attention to the issue.
Davis pediatrician and social activist Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia warned that acquiring such equipment for local police agencies could come at a steep cost for citizens, and pointed to the 2011 pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis by campus police as a sign of how easily matters can get out of hand between police and civilians.
“That’s crazy,” she said of the armored vehicle acquisition. “I can’t believe we’re doing that after the pepper-spraying.
“What will happen eventually, because we have it, are the scenes we’re seeing in (Missouri).”
A Washington Post report last week cited government figures showing the 1033 Program had handed out more than $5.1 billion in equipment nationwide since 1997, including $92 million in equipment distributed to California law agencies since 2006 for items like the Davis Police Department’s slightly used Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle, a smaller version of armored vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chief Landy Black of the Davis police defended the acquisition of the MRAP, saying in a statement that its heavy armor “makes it the perfect platform to perform rescues of victims and potential victims during … active-shooter incidents, and to more safely deliver officers into an active-shooter incident.”
“We are sensitive to the ‘militarization of the police’ concern,” the chief added. “We do not want to minimize that sentiment and will look for ways to reduce public anxiety, including through the community trust that the Davis Police Department works so hard to earn and keep.”
Some Davis political leaders nonetheless were taken aback by the department’s acquisition.
“I can’t imagine why Davis needs a tank,” Davis Mayor Dan Wolk said Wednesday. “It’s in a city garage and I hope it stays there.”
City Councilman Lucas Frerichs said the council received notice Aug. 6 that the armored vehicle had been acquired, and that since then council members have been speaking with the chief about it.
“I was extremely surprised to learn of the recent acquisition of this armored vehicle after its delivery,” Frerichs said. “I have raised questions about the appropriateness and need for such a ‘tool.’ ”
Concerns over the program have been raised by some for years, but the nightly broadcasts from Ferguson of body-armored police firing tear gas cannons and mounted on military-style vehicles have turned the issue into a national debate, with Attorney General Eric Holder saying last week that he was “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
The program has hardly been a secret. Details of its rules, even a catalog of property available through it, are easily accessible online.
In California, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services oversees applications for the program. Law enforcement agencies submit requests for equipment that are reviewed by Cal OES and, if they are deemed appropriate for the agency, are sent on to the federal government for a final decision.
Some agencies have been using the program for so long that officials had difficulty Wednesday immediately tracking down inventories of items they had obtained or said the items were no longer in use.
The California Highway Patrol said it had gotten items such as bullhorns and a VCR but hadn’t used the program in four to five years, although it once obtained a personnel carrier that it ended up never using. Sacramento police spokesman Doug Morse said the department got two helicopters, and Roseville police reported obtaining items including a Humvee, truck scales, a bomb robot, entry tools for the SWAT team and workout benches.
“We painted the Humvee black and white with a Roseville PD emblem, and use it in community outreach events like Shop with a Cop and National Night Out,” spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said in an email. “It’s not used for patrol operations.”
Placer County sheriff’s spokeswoman Dena Erwin said her agency had once obtained an older armored vehicle from another agency through the program but that it has since been replaced by another vehicle obtained by a grant that is shared throughout the county. The department also has obtained about 50 rifles, including M16s, she said, as well as boots, rifle cleaning kits, batons and binoculars.
“We don’t have anything like grenade launchers or anything like that,” she added.
At UC Davis, a spokesman said the campus police had obtained some helmets and gas masks through the program in the past, “but nothing still in use.”
Police officials said the program has great value in getting protective equipment to officers, and that the use of armored vehicles is not a signal that agencies are moving against citizens but a reflection of the reality that officers need protection as they try to subdue gunmen barricaded inside buildings and elsewhere.
“We’ve been trying to get the vehicle for several years,” Davis police Lt. Thomas Waltz said of the MRAP. “It’s not an offensive vehicle. It’s going to be used in emergency situations – it offers protection from small-arms fire.”