The wide-ranging list of military surplus goods acquired by Washington state law enforcement agencies through a U.S. Department of Defense program includes over a dozen mine-resistant vehicles, hundreds of M16 assault rifles, spare helicopter parts, pouches for human remains, bomb disposal robots and sniper scopes.
In recent days, the so-called 1033 program has come under intense scrutiny as protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have clashed with camouflage-clad police officers equipped with armored vehicles, assault rifles and tear gas. The protests began in the St. Louis suburb the day after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9.
The Defense Department program dates back to the 1990s. It enables local police forces nationwide to procure surplus military equipment, often for little more than the price of shipping and maintenance. During the first week of August, 114 agencies in Washington had 12,376 of those military surplus items on hand, which were valued at $23.9 million, according to records from the state's department of enterprise services.
Nationally, the program was used to transfer over $449 million of equipment to local law enforcement agencies during last year alone, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.
The events in Ferguson have caused lawmakers and others to question whether local police departments have become over-militarized. And on Monday, President Barack Obama suggested that it may be time to review programs that funnel military equipment to police departments.
But law enforcement officials here in Washington say that the 1033 program provides a valuable pathway for their departments to access equipment that helps keep their officers and their jurisdictions safe, while also shielding taxpayers from pricey purchases.
"We've definitely been shot at several times," said Sgt. Jeff DeHan, who leads the SWAT team for the sheriff's office in Thurston County, which encompasses Olympia.
In late April, DeHan's office became one of 17 Washington police departments to procure a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, through the 1033 program. The burly, truck-like vehicles commonly weigh between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds and are designed to withstand blasts from improvised explosive devices.
Normally, such a vehicle would have cost $733,000, according to the enterprise services records, but the sheriff's office only had to pay about $6,000 to have it shipped from Texas, according to DeHan. And a private company, he said, helped cover most of that cost.
"All and all we're only going to be into it for a few thousand dollars," he said.
Why does the Thurston County Sheriff's Office need a battlefield-grade piece of equipment like an MRAP?
DeHan says that the department's last SWAT vehicle was akin to a UPS delivery truck and did not have any "ballistic protection." The armored vehicles that the Washington State Patrol owns, he said, are not always nearby or available on short notice.
He gave several recent examples of situations where people fired on officers from buildings and mentioned one instance where an officer was shot twice and wounded. DeHan considers the armored vehicle a huge asset in these types of situations. "You can't hide behind a little shield to move an entire team," he said.
According to DeHan, the vehicle could also prove useful after a flood, or other natural disasters like an earthquake.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper oversaw the Seattle Police Department's response to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. That response effort, which drew criticism for being overly militaristic, involved police in riot gear and hundreds of arrests. Stamper himself has expressed regret over some of the aggressive methods the department used to handle the protests.
Watching events unfold in Ferguson in recent days has left him unsettled. "It's like someone handed them a script about how not to do things," Stamper said. "You just don't use those military tactics against non-violent protestors."
Stamper is not opposed to equipping SWAT teams with military gear, like Thurston County's MRAP. "What troubles me," he said, "is the use of military garb, and military equipment and military weaponry that creeps into the everyday life of a police force."
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