New Documents Show Pentagon Rubber-Stamping Police Requests For Military Gear

(Huff Post) - Police are citing racial justice protests and routine 911 calls to ask for armored vehicles built for a battlefield — and the Defense Department is buying it.

New Documents Show Pentagon Rubber-Stamping Police Requests For Military Gear

Last summer, as one city after another broke out in protest against the murder of George Floyd, some of the most enduring images were not of the demonstrators, but of the police: decked out in riot gear, aiming automatic weapons at peaceful crowds, and riding around on armored vehicles built for war.

The crackdowns on protesters renewed furious demands to end a suite of federal programs that have put billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons in the hands of local police. President Joe Biden singled out the most infamous of these — the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which transfers weapons and equipment from America’s foreign wars directly to domestic law enforcement agencies — for special condemnation. “Surplus military equipment for law enforcement? They don’t need that,” Biden said last July. “The last thing you need is an up-armored Humvee coming into the neighborhood.” 

But as calls to demilitarize the police have intensified, so has the belief in countless police departments that they need the tools and weapons of war to police America’s cities and towns. 

Under a Freedom of Information Act request, HuffPost has exclusively obtained hundreds of letters that local law enforcement agencies wrote to the Department of Defense in 2017 and 2018 making the case to receive an armored vehicle under the 1033 program. 

The documents reveal that hundreds of police departments across the country, in communities of all sizes, are willing to deploy armored vehicles to carry out even the most routine tasks: making traffic stops; serving search warrants; responding to domestic violence; responding to people threatening suicide. 

In these requests, law enforcement officials predicted they would roll out these vehicles into their communities 10, 20, 40, 70, or more than 100 times a year, and in situations that are not automatically dangerous. The sheriff of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, went so far as to assert that a police officer could die serving a notice of a civil lawsuit — and so his agency ought to have two armored vehicles. 

“Deputies and police officers die every day performing routine assignments,” he wrote, echoing the you-never-know logic of hundreds of similar requests. “It is always better to have protection and not need it than to have none while in need.”

One department after another described broad criteria for using an armored vehicle that bordered on cavalier: whenever police are going somewhere they believe someone could have a gun, even legally; whenever a suspect “could” become violent.

The requests aren’t limited to a particular region or type of community, suggesting the sheer ubiquity of the militarized mindset inside ordinary police departments. Cities claimed they need armored vehicles because they police dense, urban areas, while rural towns claimed they need the vehicles because their population is spread out. Whatever the size and makeup of their community, agencies marshaled that as evidence of their need to be extremely well-armored.

The requests differed sharply from how police justify and defend the use of military-style weapons to the public. In public, law enforcement agencies tend to say that they will only break out armored vehicles in rare cases of extreme violence, such as mass shootings. “With everything that we ask of local law enforcement, why would we ask them to have anything less than the best safety equipment available?” asked Patrick Yoes, the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, in a recent interview.

The 1,200-plus pages of documents HuffPost obtained expose the flimsy pretext that police will only use military gear in a genuine crisis — and how explicitly many police acknowledge that their goal is to intimidate vulnerable members of their communities.
In response to these requests, the Pentagon has provided thousands of small-town police and sheriff agencies with vehicles built to withstand conditions of war. The 1033 program has also distributed billions of dollars’ worth of helicopters, body armor, night vision equipment, ammunition, rifle sights, machine guns and assault rifles. 

The most iconic piece of equipment is the MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, which was designed to protect American troops in Iraq from IED blasts. Once they roll onto American streets, police almost invariably use armored vehicles to transport SWAT teams to carry out drug-related search warrants and to crack down on people exercising their right to protest.

“The major impact of using this military gear for everyday policing is on the lives of Black and brown people,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. 

Opponents of the 1033 program are becoming fearful that they will never rein it in. Despite his comments last summer, Biden has failed to seize multiple opportunities to reform the Pentagon’s 1033 program. The White House prepared an executive order to limit the program his very first week in office, but Biden never signed it. House Democrats have introduced multiple bills to limit or end the program and openly called on the president to take action on his own, but Biden has remained silent. 

And Democrats’ sweeping proposals for police reform, which would significantly limit the 1033 program, have reportedly stalled, with rising crime rates making lawmakers wary of appearing at odds with the police. In late July, Punchbowl reported that bipartisan negotiations over police reform led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) are on “life support.” 

‘They’re Ready For War’
The 1,200-plus pages of documents HuffPost obtained expose the flimsy pretext that police will only use military gear in a genuine crisis — and how explicitly many police acknowledge that their goal is to intimidate vulnerable members of their communities. The requests also reveal how thoroughly many police have learned to fear the public as potential combatants, how automatically they are able to perceive everyday situations as potentially lethal, and how fervently they believe that their fear justifies extreme countermeasures for everyday conflicts. A few times, police departments even referred to their officers as “troops” or to police shifts as “tours of duty.”

The letters also reflect a disturbing comfort with — even an expectation of — using military gear and tactics to respond to civil demonstrators. Multiple agencies explicitly asked for armored vehicles to use at protests against police violence toward Black people and pipeline resistance led by Native Americans.

Years before Floyd’s murder made Minneapolis the epicenter of nationwide protests, multiple agencies in Minnesota requested armored vehicles to use in the event of “civil protest involving mass arrests.” Other agencies around the country cited potential “civil disturbances” “civil disorder” “civil unrest” and “crowd control” as reasons they ought to have artillery-proof Humvees and mine-resistant trucks. 

The sheriff’s department in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, which participated in the heavily armed crackdown on people protesting the police shooting of Alton Sterling, cited those protests as one reason it needed three armored vehicles: a Humvee, an up-armored Humvee, and a six-wheeled MRAP. (Asked if using an armored vehicle to respond to a civil demonstration could erode community trust, a sheriff spokesperson said community trust is preserved when law enforcement shows it can keep the public safe.)

In 2017, the police chief of Northwoods, Missouri, requested an armored vehicle to confront the local protest movement that had grown out of the Ferguson uprising after the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. One of those protesters was Northwoods native, activist and future Democratic Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo), who is now a co-sponsor of legislation to eliminate the 1033 program. 

The force with which police confronted racial justice protesters last year, in other words, was not a matter of being caught by surprise, but the product of deliberate preparation.

“It seems like they’re ready for war. And you’re going to war against your citizens, your taxpayers, your folks who are calling out injustice,” said Jae Shepherd, a community organizer in St. Louis, in a recent interview. Shepherd leads Defund SLMPD and has been chased and attacked by riot cops at many small, peaceful protests in the years since Ferguson. ”We were the ones experiencing violence.”

During the 2016 raid on Standing Rock, North Dakota, dozens of police swarmed and evicted Native American residents to make way for the Dakota Access Pipeline using armored vehicles. 

“I think it’s the ugliest day I’ve seen,” Joye Braun, one of the hundreds of protesters forcibly removed from Standing Rock, told HuffPost. More than 100 officers, many wearing riot gear, formed a half-circle around one end of the camp with two armored vehicles at the center. From there, they swept in on Native Americans who were holding signs or huddled in prayer and arrested them en masse.

“It reminded me of every dictatorial regime that I’ve ever seen pictures of or heard about or come across in all my travels,” Braun said. “But it was here.”

Braun’s sister, who watched the assault play out on social media, was serving in Afghanistan at the time, and she texted Braun which pieces of equipment looked identical to the ones on her army base. 

A year later, multiple law enforcement agencies in South Dakota had requested armored vehicles for when the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines continued south. Pennington County, South Dakota, for example — which had sent officers to assist the raid on Standing Rock — requested an MRAP and an up-armored Humvee to confront anti-pipeline protesters.

The requests also reflect the stark racial inequalities in whom police treat as dangerous.

One agency that requested and received an MRAP was the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin. Kenosha is where, last August, police shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back, causing the city to erupt in protests. Three days into the unrest, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who had deputized himself to defend property from the protesters, shot three people and was allowed by officers to walk away, his rifle still dangling from his shoulder. 

In his request, the Kenosha County sheriff had included “active shooters” as the kind of threat his department could more easily apprehend if he had an MRAP. And Kenosha officers did have armored vehicles on the scene during the protests. But while they used those vehicles to intimidate protesters and shower them in tear gas, the armored convoy that encountered Rittenhouse — with his hands raised in surrender as bystanders shouted that he was the shooter — drove right by. 

Many of these letters invite broader criticism of the nation’s law enforcement system and the ways it lacks rigorous standards and is prone to abuse. Dozens of agencies in New York, Mississippi and New Jersey said they would pay for the vehicle upkeep through asset forfeiture, a corruption-prone practice in which law enforcement seizes cash and valuables from people accused but not yet convicted of a crime. (New Jersey has since changed its laws to require a conviction.) The Hancock County, Indiana sheriff’s office said it could fund maintenance of the vehicle from commissary sales to people in county jail.

Vetting appeared to be minimal. The sheriff of Big Horn County, Montana, appears to have ignored a 2015 state law prohibiting police from obtaining surplus vehicles from the military and requested a Peacekeeper. The sheriff and the state-appointed coordinator for the 1033 program, who approved the ask, did not respond to requests for comment.

And with 8,000 law enforcement agencies participating in the 1033 program, virtually anyone could wind up with military equipment. One police chief who requested a vehicle for his department, Chris West of Canadian County, Oklahoma, attended the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that turned into a riot at the U.S. Capitol. He has denied joining the mob that descended on the building. In a string of since-deleted Facebook posts appearing to belong to West, he wrote, “I’m okay with using whatever means necessary to preserve America and save FREEDOM & LIBERTY” and said he wanted to see several members of Congress “in jail” “or worse.” Pentagon records show his department already has at least one mine-resistant vehicle and four dozen automatic rifles. 

The letters are also rife with justifications that a reasonable person might consider a stretch. 

Because the Defense Department asks a town’s population, agencies found infinite ways to inflate their populations, noting that the daytime brings out-of-towners to their schools, colleges, shopping centers, beaches, “numerous doctor’s buildings,” a “world-class equestrian event facility,” and a private label pet food factory.

Countless departments pointed out that they were home to attractions and infrastructure that are essentially ubiquitous: turnpikes, highway overpasses, train trestles, a bus garage, hotels, a casino, hospitals and surgical centers, business parks, “abundant day care facilities” government buildings, movie theaters, amusement parks, county fairs, college sports tournaments, and minor league sports stadiums. Not one but two agencies pointed out that they should get consideration because their jurisdiction was located near the fifth-busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest.

With 8,000 law enforcement agencies participating in the 1033 program, virtually anyone could wind up with military equipment.
HuffPost will make the documents behind this story available to the public in the coming weeks. Of note to local reporters and civic groups, agencies must explain how they can afford to maintain an armored vehicle, who can use it, and which members of local government signed off on the request. Not every agency that requested an armored vehicle received one — inventory is limited — but every request referred to in this story received Pentagon approval.

The sheer volume of requests runs counter to what the public says it wants out of its police departments. A majority of Americans consistently oppose the police use of military gear and weapons, with a much smaller proportion supporting it. Those in favor may be comfortable in the knowledge that police are using military gear to target someone else: White people are more likely to support police militarization but less likely to have SWAT raids take place in their communities, which happen disproportionately in Black and brown neighborhoods.

Braun, the Standing Rock protester, says she regularly sees police in her neighborhood responding to ordinary calls for help with a SWAT team, even years after the pipeline protests.

“Those agencies wanted that equipment not for [the pipeline] — that’s the original excuse — but to go up against the Indigenous community that lives here,” she said. “They consider us ‘the bad thing’ here.”