WEST MICHIGAN - It’s been going on for years, but was thrust into the public consciousness in Ferguson, Missouri in just the last few months: heavily armored local police forces, looking more like Special Forces Units than uniformed officers.
While public outcry has called into question the militarization of police, it’s all possible thanks to a program that provides excess military equipment to local law enforcement.
As part of the National Defense Authorization Act passed nearly 25 years ago, congress launched what’s known as the 1033 program as part of the nation’s war on drugs. Years later, it was expanded to include the war on terror. Since the program began, the military has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property.
That transfer of equipment to local law enforcement has raised questions about police militarization, punctuated by the response protesters faced after the shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson.
The program offers to local law enforcement clothing and office supplies, tools and rescue equipment, vehicles, rifles and other small arms. In West Michigan, departments have collected well over $5 million worth of property.
While much of the information is freely available online, FOX 17 asked for lists of tactical equipment from 12 county sheriff’s departments.
Eleven complied; one asked for an extension in response to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Nationwide, more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have access to the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which facilitates the 1033 program.
It’s simple to join: there’s a one-page application.
In Michigan, a law enforcement agency sends its request to the Joint Forces headquarters.
Once approved by the state coordinator, the department is assigned a username and password. That’s when the ‘shopping’ can begin.
“It’s not just a grocery list that you go fill and walk away with an arm full of things,” said Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller.
Departments can’t always get what they want: federal agencies have first pick. Checks and balances are also in place.
“The military will periodically come in and do an audit on us and we have to be accountable for everything that we have because it still belongs to the military,” explained Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Some of this equipment - depending on how it’s registered through the federal government - it becomes our equipment and we can actually sell it, if we want to,” said Capt. Mike Poulin with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department.
Poulin coordinates the 1033 program for the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department and its multi-jurisdictional special response team.
The expectation is that law enforcement officials request only the items they need.
“We really researched these items before we went and sought them so it didn’t look like we were trying to stockpile something,” Fuller said. “We have a need for what we bring in. We don’t bring in anything extra.”
As one might expect, those needs vary by department. In Barry, Muskegon and several other counties, the most expensive requests have been for tactical equipment, such as firearms and sights and armored and mine resistant ambush proof vehicles, or MRAPs.
In June, we got to drive one of the 38,000 pound armored personnel carriers, a vehicle surprisingly nimble considering its mass.
“There’s all kinds of things we can use that MRAP for,” Leaf explained. “We can use it for tactical; that’s obvious. The military’s using it for tactical. The military is also using it for rescue. We can use it for rescue.”
Capt. Poulin told FOX 17 safety is the reason his department has an MRAP.
“I will agree that this is more than we need because of what this vehicle is designed to do, but, it still offers the same protection for us - actually more - but offers the same protection for us that we would get from the civilian market of purchasing an armored vehicle,” Poulin said.
It’s a point Poulin stresses: much of the equipment available through LESO can be purchased by police or sheriff’s offices.
“I’ve said it before: a lot of this equipment is everything we could buy,” said Poulin. “We’re not getting anything that's that crazy or special, but it’s everything we could go out and purchase, but we just can’t afford to do it.”
According to documents reviewed by FOX 17, in West Michigan there are at least 20 MRAPs, 15 hummers or other armored personnel carriers, 62 M-14 rifles, 77 M-16 rifles, 10 pistols, five grenade launchers, three shotguns and 38 bayonets. For the most part, all items more often associated with military than local police.
“I’ve had several conversations with community leaders who asked these same questions about, ‘why do we have these devices?’ or ‘what was our plan in getting some of these things?’ and I have to remind everybody this simple fact: most of the stuff we’re talking about is for the protection of citizens and our law enforcement, our personnel,” explained Fuller.
Sheriff Leaf agrees.
“I don’t have a problem with them questioning it,” Leaf said. “That’s their duty; that’s their job, but this has been going on for decades.”
In Barry County, some of the tactical equipment has been – or will be - modified to be less than lethal, or will be used for other purposes.
“What we’re going to do with these [shotguns] is sand this down, paint these orange and what the orange shotgun is - it’s a bean bag,” explained Leaf. “It will shoot a bean bag round. Most of the Honor Guards are using [M-14] rifle[s], so we got a bunch of these so we could start our Honor Guard.”
In Kalamazoo County, Sheriff Fuller has also acquired tactical gear, such as rifles, a hummer and a boat, which is used by the marine unit.
Valuable additions have also been made to the new jail through the help of the 1033 program.
“The heart monitor, those are roughly $25,000, if we had to go buy it ourselves,” Fuller said.
The sheriff’s office has also gotten about $10,000 worth of dental equipment and exam tables, three oxygenators worth thousands of dollars, and two pulse oximeters, which run hundreds of dollars each, and it’s all equipment that’s been bought and paid for by the American taxpayer, then transferred to the county by LESO.
“If I can save my people in Barry County some money that they’ve already spent, [then] we don’t have to double dip on them,” said Sheriff Leaf.
Sheriff Fuller says the savings to taxpayers in Kalamazoo County have been significant.
“I’m much more comfortable saying that we have easily saved, probably, a quarter of a million dollars in collecting the items we’ve seen necessary to bring to the sheriff’s office to help protect our citizens and our law enforcement professionals,” said Fuller.
According to LESO, just five percent of the equipment available are weapons and less than one percent are tactical vehicles.
Following the chaos in Ferguson, President Obama ordered a review of the 1033 program, which included the National Security Council and the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, among others. Committees in both the U.S. Senate and House have also held hearings on the program.
FOX 17 reached out to the ACLU for comment, but did not get a response by the time this story was published.