What is the 1033 Program? How the militarization of police forces has changed landscape of weapons on streets

The program has come under increasing public scrutiny over the passing of excess military hardware to state and local law enforcement agencies

                            What is the 1033 Program? How the militarization of police forces has changed landscape of weapons on streets
(Getty Images)

Police forces in the US have found themselves under pressure in recent times because of alleged racial bias. Since the brutal death of George Floyd under police custody in Minneapolis in May, calls for defunding police departments across cities in America have gained momentum and led to massive political controversies. However, there is still no end to the controversy around the law-keepers.

North Carolina-based JDNews reported on Tuesday, September 8, that the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) has been borrowing surplus items from the defense department through a federal program called the 1033 Program. WPD is in fact one of the several area agencies that have got access to "controlled" (M-16 rifles) and "uncontrolled" items (tents and generators) under the program.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety audits the controlled items annually while the uncontrolled items are audited only after the first year. 

Police force protestors from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on August 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri (Getty Images)

Explaining the idea of police officers getting M-16 rifles that are used by the military, WPD Captain Rodney Dawson said: "Patrol officers are assigned M16 rifles because those weapons exist on the street and officers need to be prepared if confronted by a suspect armed with such a weapon," the report added. "Our officers are trained to match, or exceed by one level, any use-of-force by a suspect. Thus, they would be expected to have a weapon that matches an M16 rifle when confronted by a suspect carrying one," he said, adding the weapons cannot be used for controlling or civil disturbances. 

"They still belong to the military and at any point, the military can come up and say we want our equipment back," Dawson said. "Tax dollars have already paid for these items, so instead of the military disposing them, they're basically given a second life through law enforcement." The defense department posts surplus inventory on a classified website regularly where various agencies can apply for individual items. The Law Enforcement Support Office then assesses which departments fulfill certain criteria and have the biggest need. 

A few months ago, pictures of police forces equipped with full-body armor and vehicles that resemble tanks taking on protesters on streets in America's cities were vigorously doing the rounds on social media. It has been seen that even local law-enforcement agencies have responded to protests, even non-violent ones, like when the military and the Pentagon ordered an active-duty battalion of military police soldiers from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to be deployed in the national capital to deal with violent protesters. 
This "militarization of the police" has often come up for discussion and the recent scenes of law enforcement agencies using military-grade equipment against protesters have put the focus back on the 1033 Program. Billions of federal dollars have been channelized on buying modern and often military-grade equipment for state and local police since September 11, the Guardian reported in August 2014. The use of this hardware for counter-terrorism purposes is hardly restricted while oversight of the spending is difficult, the report said citing federal sources.

But why has there been such a program in place under which a local cop almost becomes impossible to be distinguished from a National Guard personnel?

What is the 1033 Program?

In 1944, the Surplus Property Act made a provision whereby surplus government property was disposed of and it saw the formation of a number of short-lived agencies like the Surplus War Property Administration, Surplus Property Board and others. It was abolished in 1949. Then in 1990, the National Defense Authorization Act’s Section 1208 authorized the transfer of military hardware from the defense department broadly to federal and state agencies but specifically in counter-drug activities.

Till 1997, it was known as the 1208 Program and run by the defense department from the Pentagon and its regional units. Earlier in 1995, the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) was created within the Defense Logistics Agency to work with law enforcement exclusively. 

With the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, the 1208 Program was expanded into the 1033 Program allowing “all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission" and that "Preference is given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism requests." It was signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton in September 1996.

In 2014, several events led to growing public scrutiny and the eventual release of federal records on the movement of military goods to law-enforcement officials as the Ferguson "Black Lives Matter" protests of August that year added fuel to the controversy around the program. 

According to the LESO, which oversees the program of passing the excess equipment from the defense department to the local authorities, property worth over $7.4 billion has been transferred since the beginning and over 8,000 law-enforcement agencies have been enrolled. While clothing, tools, radios, etc, have been ordinary, the passing of weapons and armed vehicles has fuelled the controversy. 

No record of equipment passed, no training to use them

Anna Gunderson, a political scientist at Louisiana State University who co-penned a 2019 study that examined the effects of the 1033 Program on crime rates, was quoted as saying by a report in the WIRED earlier this year: "The federal government doesn’t really keep track of a lot of this equipment that goes to local law enforcement agencies. The agencies themselves are inconsistent in keeping track. That just makes it really difficult for anyone to try to learn about the program or study it to try and analyze it because we don’t have a very clear understanding of what kinds of equipment actually are in the hands of these agencies."

"The DLA did not archive active inventories prior to 2014. They also did not archive information about transfers of equipment and the destruction of controlled equipment during that time. LEAs themselves typically only retain records for a few years, subject to their own local-level record keeping requirements," Kenneth Lowande, a political scientist at the University of Michigan whose research includes the program, said. "Some of this can never be fixed. You can't re-create records that are lost."

What has added to the controversy is that the defense department doesn't give training to law-enforcement agencies in using the controlled property, the report added. "What programs like 1033 have done is given people the equipment to carry out operations that are traditionally done by tactical teams that otherwise would not have been able to obtain it," said Jonathan Mummolo, a political scientist at Princeton University who works on policing.

Barack Obama (Getty Images)

Former President Barack Obama tried to bring things under control by preventing state and local law enforcement from receiving certain types of property like grenade launchers and weaponized aircraft under the 1033 Program but President Donald Trump lifted the ban in 2017. However, experts feel even the ban that Obama had imposed had made very little change and the former president’s executive order could only be applied to around 300 departments. 

The militarization of the police has also left an adverse effect on police activity. According to Ryan Welch, a political scientist at the University of Tampa who co-authored a study in 2017 on the effects of the 1033 program on police violence: "Our research suggests that officers with military hardware and mindsets will resort to violence more quickly and often."

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