The 1033 program is one of many avenues through which the federal government provides excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies. Police departments request items like land mine-resistant vehicles, surveillance helicopters, and rifles to prepare for potential combat situations involving violent offenders. In the absence of those fights, cops have combat-style equipment available for use against peaceful protesters and non-violent criminals. These programs directly link branches of the U.S. military with local policing efforts.
The federal government has provided excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies since 1990. In the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress permitted the Department of Defense (DOD) to transfer excess counter-drug military equipment to law enforcement agencies. Remaining in effect to this day, this policy mandates that whenever any military service branch determines that a piece of equipment is no longer necessary, it is entered into the DOD supply system and assigned a "demilitarized" code depending on its level of maintenance and potential danger. Prior to the 1990 NDAA, demilitarized equipment was only sent to branches of the military who may need the equipment, transferred to other federal agencies, or sold/destroyed. The 1990 NDAA added a fourth destination—state and local law enforcement agencies.
The process established in the 1990 NDAA was renewed in 1991, and then made permanent in 1997. In 1997, Section 1033 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense 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 the agencies in law enforcement activities, including counter-drug, counterterrorism, and border security activities; and (b) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” (U.S. Code 2576a). It is from this law that political commentators and activists derive the shorthand name for this program—the 1033 Program. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA)’s Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) has overseen this program since 1997.
It is important to note that the 1033 program is only one of six federal programs through which law enforcement agencies can acquire military equipment. The other programs are the (1) U.S. Department of Homeland Security Homeland Security Grant Program, (2) U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Justice Assistance Grant Program, (3) DOJ Equitable Sharing Program, (4) U.S. Department of the Treasury Forfeiture Fund’s Equitable Sharing Program, (5) General Services Administration Federal Surplus Personal Property Donation Program. Law enforcement agencies can purchase military equipment on the commercial market using their own funds, but these federal programs cover most or all of the cost of purchasing these items. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus on the 1033 program.
Law enforcement agencies must complete three steps to acquire military equipment through the 1033 program. Law enforcement agencies in any state can request equipment by first seeking approval for their law enforcement agency’s participation from their Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) state coordinator. Then, police department heads peruse an online catalog of excess military inventory, and finally request any equipment whose use a state coordinator may deem justifiable for “counterdrug, counterterrorism, and border security activities.” (U.S. Code 2576a). State coordinators can revoke a law enforcement agency’s participation if it doesn’t meet equipment compliance standards or if it uses equipment outside of its intended justification. However, a 2017 Government Accountability Report scrutinizing the 1033 program found gaps in accountability and program oversight, particularly in equipment transfers between the federal agencies that utilize the 1033 program to directly request equipment from the Defense Logistics Agency.
Police departments can receive a wide variety of military-grade materials through this program. Equipment available through the 1033 program is classified as either controlled or uncontrolled. Tactical vehicles, weapons, and riot gear are all examples of controlled property, which must be used once a year to prove its continued relevance. Uncontrolled property includes items like computers, first aid kits, and sleeping bags and is completely owned by the purchasing law enforcement agency so its use does not have to be justified. As of 2016, 82% of the equipment that law enforcement agencies have is considered controlled property.
Arming civilian police officers with military equipment has resulted in considerable backlash in the last decade. In particular, the 1033 program came under fire following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and the proceeding militant police response. Despite the fact that the equipment used by police in those altercations were procured through the DHS Security Grant Program, President Obama reviewed the 1033 program and in 2015 signed an executive order prohibiting the following previously controlled items: Tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles of any kind, firearms of .50 caliber or higher, ammunition of.50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets, camouflage uniforms. Prior to 2015, the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) had only transferred three of those items: grenade launchers, bayonets, and tracked armored vehicles. The Executive Order mandated that LESO recall these items.
Two years later, President Trump reversed the Obama-era order, returning grenade launchers, bayonets, and tracked armored vehicles to controlled property status. LESO stopped transferring grenade launchers to law enforcement agencies in 1999 and does not plan to resume. However, departments after 2017 were again able to purchase bayonets and tracked armored vehicles. An amendment to the 2020 National Defense Authorization bill re-established Obama-era restrictions on military transfers.
None of these executive orders or laws address the problems of police militarization that spurred accountability investigations in the first place. Firstly, federal agencies and law enforcement agencies are linked through the 1033 program and five other federal transfer programs. Ferguson police used equipment acquired through the DHS Security Grant program, not the 1033 program. Secondly, most of the items President Obama banned in 2015 had not been transferred by the 1033 program in years—the DLA had only been transferring grenade launchers, bayonets, and tracked armored vehicles. Thirdly, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) tanks, most rifles, and surveillance helicopters were never prohibited. Existing limits placed on the 1033 program do not require the return of these weapons, even though their use is oftentimes what calls attention to the program. For example, Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, a community of 6,700 people which between 2006-2014 received 10 helicopters, one mine-resistant armored vehicle and two Humvees, can maintain this equipment because those items are not included in the recent changes to the 1033 program.
In short, a comprehensive effort to remove military-grade equipment from the hands of civilian police forces requires a dissolution of the 1033 program as it presently exists, and a close examination of the other five programs through which federal agencies provide combat-grade equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
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