That’s the number that’s been on the minds of journalists, politicians, and concerned citizens across the country since clashes between heavily-armed police forces and protesters in Ferguson, Mo. broke out several weeks ago.
As Watchdog.org journalist Eric Boehm reports, the “1033″ designation belongs to a Department of Defense program approved by Congress in 1990 that allowed the transfer of military surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies. Although now nearly a quarter of a century old, the effects of the 1033 Program have only just recently become painfully obvious to the media and elected officials – thanks in large part to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than $5 billion worth of military-grade equipment has been handed out to local law enforcement units over the program’s lifetime. As the New York Times documents in this interactive map, just since 2006, dozens of grenade launchers, hundreds of armored vehicles and countless assault rifles have been distributed to counties all over the country.
The outcry over this has been so great that President Obama has now ordered a review of the federal programs and funding that allow military-surplus equipment to be transferred to local law enforcement agencies.
“The review will include whether the programs are appropriate, if the agencies are getting enough training and guidance to use the equipment and whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of the equipment,” Fox News reported Sunday.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement,” said President Obama, “and we don’t want those lines blurred.”
Blurring, however, seems to have already occurred, and Congress has been complicit in it. As Eric Boehm reported for Watchdog.org, Congress had a chance two months ago – before police militarization became part of the national conversation – to partially defund the 1033 Program and stem the tide of Pentagon freebies flowing to states. They shot down Rep. Alan Grayson’s proposal, however, in a decisive 62-355 vote.
Unsurprisingly, Boehm found, the U.S. House members who voted against Grayson’s amendment received, on average, 73 percent more from defense contractors than the 62 members who voted to restrict the 1033 Program.
Like Congress, many states have welcomed surplus military gear with open arms. In Missouri, for instance, the nexus of the militarization controversy, Governor Jay Nixon said he was “thunderstruck” by the “overmilitarization” he has seen. But as recently as January he signed off on statewide participation of the 1033 Program.
The outcry over Ferguson and elsewhere shouldn’t come as a surprise to Watchdog.org readers. Months before mainstream news outlets became widely aware of this trend, we were on the ground telling stories about local police departments gone wild – like this recruiting video in New Mexico, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles rolling into small town Idaho.
We noted last June that when civil liberties are threatened by government pushing the limits of its powers, we’d be there to give citizens the facts about what is happening. And we have, reporting on the acquisition of military-grade equipment by police departments in states like Kansas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin. We even found what appeared to be some encouraging news in New Mexico as officials in Albuquerque announced last month that they were getting rid of their MRAP, only to discover that police had purchased a new tactical vehicle and planned to acquire another.
As the national debate metastasizes, we will continue to cover the stories that help Americans understand what their local PD is up to. You can read all of Watchdog.org’s stories uncovering the state-level impact of the 1033 Program HERE.
“A full-throated argument — even an angry one full of distortion and political bias — has been long overdue,” wrote New Mexico Watchdog reporter Rob Nikolewski as he reflected on what has become America’s “militarization moment.”
“After all, local police forces are funded with tax dollars that come from each and every one of us. Police are public servants, first and foremost, just like our elected public servants, our mayors, city councilors and clerks.”