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In 1990 the United States Congress gave authorization to the Pentagon to begin distributing military surplus items to local and state police departments and law enforcement agencies. The regulations and guidelines for such authorization was laid out in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991. In this act, Congress granted authorization, under what’s referred to as “the 1033 program”, to the Department of Defense, to transfer excess military property to both federal and state law enforcement agencies, for the purpose of helping to fight the war on drugs. In 1997, the program was expanded to allow all law enforcement agencies — even those at local, municipal levels — to acquire surplus military goods from the Department of Defense. The program was expanded with the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997.
With this new expansion, law enforcement agencies were granted the ability to acquire surplus military items which would aid them in carrying out any legitimate police operations — with preference for distribution going to agencies seeking to use such surplus items in order to fight drug trafficking and in assisting in counter-terrorism operations.
In 1995, the overseeing and operations of the 1033 program was placed under the jurisdiction of the Defense Logistics Agency. And, this agency, through the DLA Disposition Service‘s Law Enforcement Support Office, headquartered in Battle Creek, Michigan, is responsible for overseeing the carrying out of the distribution of such military surplus items to this day.
The military items that have thus far been distributed to various state and local law enforcement agencies through the Defense Department’s 1033 program pretty much run the gamut — from armored military Humvees, to fully automatic weapons, state of the art night-vision gear, and pretty much any other sorts of surplus military equipment you can think of.
The program was started by Congress out of a pressing concern that local and state law enforcement agencies, back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, were finding themselves severely outgunned and out-equipped by drug-trafficking organizations. And so, with a great many of the smaller law enforcement agencies in the country also drastically underfunded and possessing little hope of adequate budget increases necessary for obtaining equipment required to match firepower with such clandestine organizations, Congress passed the 1033 program with the aim of allowing law enforcement agencies the ability to acquire military style weapons and equipment at no cost.
To date, around thirteen-thousand different law enforcement agencies throughout the country have participated in the program, and have used the 1033 program to acquire an estimated four-billion dollars worth of surplus military gear.
In most cases, of course, much of the surplus military gear is used as the originators of the program had intended for it to be used — to help law enforcement agencies fight legitimate crime. And, of course, much of it is also used to directly aid the public. For instance, not all of the surplus military items acquired are offensive in nature — in fact, only a small portion of it, around 5%, according to the DLA, are actually weapons, or offensive equipment — the vast majority of the items received by police agenciesm according to the DLA, are things like military surplus blankets, first aid supplies, and other such items. However, critics are now raising concern that some of the items obtained by local police is being misused — that law enforcement agencies are using the surplus military gear they obtain, the critics say, to militarize their agencies and turn offensive military equipment toward control and suppression of the public.
The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, in particular, has brought into the public eye this militarization of American police agencies. Critics say that the 1033 program is being abused and used by police and law enforcement for purposes other than it was originally intended — that police are using items obtained through the program not in the public interest, not in suppressing crime, but as tools of public oppression. And, one must admit, the images of military-style cammo-outfitted police officers with sniper rifles trained on crowds of American citizens that have been an all too common site in the news recently is quite disconcerting.
Many critics, and probably rightfully so, are becoming increasingly concerned with this apparent militarization of police forces throughout the country. Representative Hank Johnson, a Democrat Congressman from Georgia, has said that he will introduce legislation before Congress this coming September with an aim to curb the practice and reign in this apparent militarization of local police agencies — making it either more difficult for such agencies to acquire things like assault weapons and military style armored vehicles, or, when acquired, to use such items in ways which the original legislation did not intend.