Ferguson Protests Shed Light on Department of Defense's 1033 Program

Ferguson Protests Shed Light on Department of Defense's 1033 Program

Following the controversial death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the town of Ferguson, Missouri has been the site of heated debates and protests. Contention has largely resulted from witnesses' accounts of Brown's death bearing a stark contrast to police reports. Now, however, strife has begun to stem from a different debate: whether the Department of Defense has overcompensated in providing the police force with military equipment.

Questions related to this debate range from, "Why does it matter if Ferguson police wear camouflage uniforms?" to "Do the Ferguson police really need extra magazines when patrolling the streets?"

Some military members have weighed in on the debate via Twitter, arguing that they have been less equipped in an actual war zone. Others expressed skepticism in the Department of Defense's 1033 program, deeming it "counterproductive."

The 1033 program, federally authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, was originally launched to fight the "war on drugs." Following 9/11, however, the Act allowed local law enforcement to receive grants from the Department of Homeland Security to better defend against terrorist attacks. Today, it is interpreted in such a way that permits the Department of Defense to pass surplus military items to police stations nationwide. Items that may be transferred consist of: battle dress uniforms; armored four-wheel drive vehicles; aircraft; ballistic vests and helmets; canteens; camcorders; binoculars; computer equipment; night vision goggles; automatic rifles; grenade launchers. Such items are also eligible for fire department use.

Taking particular offense to this aspect of the 1033 program, one service member expressed, "[T]here is a reason it is called military equipment. We are trained for this. Placing these highly dangerous items into the hands of local police is the equivalent of passing corvette keys to a teenager. No cool factor intended, but the danger one is there."

The Pentagon, however, has taken the position that equipping compliant police agencies with surplus military supplies will "increase [their] capabilities, expand [their] patrol coverage, reduce response times, and save the American taxpayer's investment."

Indeed, in the wake of the Ferguson protests, many have spoken out in favor of "recycling" military equipment; if the military can no longer use the materials, why not offer them to government agencies that can? The Washington Post disputes this argument, however, in arguing that heavily armored tactical vehicles cost $10,000 to destroy on site, whereas they can cost up to $50,000 to transport, depending on their departure location.

Since its launch, the 1033 program facilitated the transfer of more than $5 billion in equipment to local police agencies. The Pentagon's website reflects that more than 8,000 agencies are currently participating in the program.

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