In 1997, the National Defense Authorization Act legalized the transfer of military hardware from the Department of Defense (DoD) to all law enforcement agencies for “bona fide law enforcement purposes” as part of the 1033 Program, operated through the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). For years, the Program transferred small amounts of material, consisting of both assorted benign tools and weapons, to local law enforcement agencies. Things began to change in 2010, however, when the value of equipment transferred began to skyrocket towards a 2014 peak of $391 Million of material transferred from the DoD to local law enforcement agencies. Since 2014, transfers to local law enforcement have continued to sit in the realm of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The first time the American public really awakened to the impact of this Program was in response to the highly militarized response by Ferguson and St. Louis police in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, as documented by Newsweek and many others. Since then, and particularly in recent weeks as wide-ranging protests across the United States have shone a spotlight on systematic issues with policing in America, there have been countless examples of tear gas, rubber bullets, and armoured vehicles used to police civic protests.
Indeed, armoured vehicles, many of them Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have become a common sight around American communities, with over $700m of vehicles disbursed across the US since just 2010. Because of the cost of the vehicles, this constitutes the single biggest transfer of value to local police departments, and often provides them a new tank-like tool that they would not otherwise purchase, or having the funds to purchase.
Granted, not all equipment transferred to local law enforcement is highly militarized. Tourniquets, sandbags, and other supplies are part of the Program, in addition to the grenade launchers and MRAPs. But when looking at both value above, and total quantity of supplies transferred below, it is clear that military weapons are the main draw of the program.
Breakdown by States
To best understand where these weapons and equipment have ended up, we can use the LESO’s public data portal to access a state-by-state listing of equipment transfers, and the local law enforcement office serving as the recipient. To visualize which states are receiving the most military equipment per capita, I divided the total value of equipment transferred to each state from 2010 to 2020 by the population of that state, giving us an
Equipment per Capita ($) metric. As the map below notes, the highest transfers per person tend to appear in the Sun Belt states, with the Northeast and West Coast states generally receiving a low amount of transfers per capita.
Relation to Police Violence
While it may be debatable “how much” different equipment, vehicles, or weapons impact police behavior, there is a growing body of literature that suggests that the overall transfer of military equipment through the 1033 Program has had multiple deleterious impacts on communities:
- Possessing deadly equipment such as assault rifles or tear gas makes it more likely that those tools end up being used in the line of duty
- Police adoption of an “us versus them” ethos, while potentially reasonable in a military context, is almost always harmful in a community environment, making police more likely to see citizens as threats when they are not, leading to disproportionate use of force
Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to do a fully-controlled study of the impact of this military equipment on police behavior and use of force. Fortunately, the Washington Post did have time to dig in, and found that controlling for income, crime levels, and demographics, “more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police”.
What I was able to do, however, was link the state-by-state 1033 Program transfers to the Mapping Police Violence database of police killings across the United States. This reveals a moderate positive correlation (r = 0.30) between the value of military equipment transferred and the rate of police killings per state. While by no means conclusive, this definitely lends further credence to the idea that further militarization of police forces increases the frequency of deadly incidents.