Want some surplus military hardware? Hankering for simulation rifles and pipe bombs that can be easily converted to active weaponry? As long as you can write a convincing email, the Pentagon is apparently happy to help.
Department of Defense (DOD) officials attempted to give $1.2 million worth of rifles, pipe bombs, and night vision goggles to a fake police department without verifying any of its information, falling for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) sting intended to test the DOD’s safeguards for the so-called 1033 weapons sales program.
GAO investigators launched the sting earlier this year but only published their findings last week, after showing Pentagon officials what they’d been able to do and receiving assurances that the U.S. military will tighten up its procedures for the weapons sales.
The 1033 program has been arming local police forces around the country since 1997. It allows Pentagon leaders to offload surplus merchandise to U.S. law enforcement offices, with little or no influence over how the materials get used locally.
The rifles and pipe bombs dispersed by the Pentagon arrive to police departments inactive, having been disarmed for use in simulation exercises. But they can be easily converted back to useful killing tools with a few quick repairs using “commercially available items,” the GAO report said. The 1033 program is supposed to apply stringent protocols to ensure such dangerous taxpayer-bought hardware doesn’t get handed over to the wrong people.
Yet when the GAO set out to test those safeguards, it discovered a system no more scrupulous than any other online store.
“It was like getting stuff off of eBay,” the GAO’s Zina Merritt told the Marshall Project. Pentagon officials sent a few emails, never figured out that the address listed on the fake police department’s application did not exist, and were ready to put the shipment in the mail “less than a week after submitting the requests,” according to the report.
The sting proves that neither the DOD nor the Department of Justice ever acted upon an executive order from former President Barack Obama that placed new controls on the military hardware distributed through the 1033 program. Obama imposed the new restrictions in 2015 and instructed DOD and DOJ to form a collaborative oversight group for the program after police in St. Louis County, Missouri responded to protests and unrest in Ferguson by deploying paramilitary units armed with disused Pentagon equipment obtained through the system.
But even before those disturbing images of black-clad security services pointing heavy weapons at protesters from atop armored vehicles, the 1033 program was playing an important role in undermining public trust in law enforcement.
The 20-year-old program has been notorious among critics of American police practices for more than a decade. By funneling heavy-duty vehicles, weapons, and tactical equipment into communities with little need or use for such hardcore materiel, the program fosters a sense that cops need to find some reason to use their new toys. More than 11,000 local police agencies received over 3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment in just the first two years of the program, which has since passed more than $6 billion worth of hardware meant for foreign-service military action into the hands of American street cops.
All these weapons have helped fuel the broader shift away from beat-cop community police work. Military-style equipment begets an occupying-warrior mindset that promotes paramilitary-style tactics in such basic policing tasks as crowd management and the serving of warrants in low-level criminal investigations, as documented in Radley Balko’s 2005 report “Overkill.”
“Civilian police departments suddenly found themselves flush with military arms,” Balko wrote. “The Los Angeles Police Department was offered bayonets. … The seven police officers of Jasper, Florida — which has all of 2,000 people and hasn’t had a murder in 14 years — were each given a military-grade M-16 machine gun, leading one Florida paper to run the headline, ‘Three Stoplights, Seven M- 16s.’ The sheriff’s office in landlocked Boone County, Indiana, was given an amphibious armored personnel carrier.”
Over the same period of time, small-town America saw a giant uptick in paramilitary tactics from their local cops. It is hard to justify maintaining a heavily armed SWAT team if you never use it, after all. The primary use such over-armored units could find in sleepy communities was to act as the tip of the drug-war spear.
Low-level drug suspects — often ones misidentified by jailhouse snitches eager to improve their own circumstances — were suddenly targeted for pre-dawn no-knock raids by squads of soldier-cops armed with Pentagon equipment. Those raids are prone to error, injury, death, and tragedy.
A sleeping baby was maimed and nearly killed by a flashbang grenade during such a warrant raid in Georgia in 2014. At least 81 civilians and 13 police officers died in “dynamic entry” house raids from 2010 to 2016, the New York Times found. Balko documented another 40 such deaths in earlier years.
The GAO’s sting offers evidence that the systems by which military hardware move into local police hands are dangerously flawed and barely policed by the Pentagon, despite years of warnings. But even if those gaps in responsibility are closed, the underlying system of passing war machines into local peace officer hands will remain fundamentally antagonistic to Americans’ ability to trust that their police agencies are responsible custodians of public safety.