War on Drugs

Massachusetts Suspends Pentagon Giveaways to Local Police Departments


The Boston Globe has been doing some terrific reporting about how small town police departments in Massachusetts have been using the Pentagon's surplus weapons program to acquire some ridiculously high-powered weaponry. The paper found that 82 police departments across the state have obtained more than 1,000 military-grade weapons over the last 15 years, including…

Police in Wellfleet, a community known for stunning beaches and succulent oysters, scored three military assault rifles. At Salem State College, where recent police calls have included false fire alarms and a goat roaming the campus, school police got two M-16s. In West Springfield, police acquired even more powerful weaponry: two military-issue M-79 grenade launchers.

In response, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has temporarily suspended the program to investigate.

The thing is, just about any decent-sized newspaper in the country could do a similar investigation. This has been going on since the early 1990s. The program was streamlined in 1997 when Congress created an agency called the Law Enforcement Support Program to facilitate the giveaways.  National Journal reported in 2000 that between 1997 and 1999 alone, the office handled 3.4 million orders for military equipment from 11,000 domestic police agencies, and gave away $727 million worth of stuff designed for use in war to be used in American streets and neighborhoods, against American citizens. That included…

"…253 aircraft (including six- and seven-passenger airplanes, and UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Huey helicopters), 7,856 M-16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles."

The transfers have only picked up since then. The program is also how Richland County, South Carolina Sheriff Leon Lott acquired his M113A1 armored personnel carrier, which moves on tank-like tracks, and features a belt-fed, turreted machine gun that fires .50-caliber rounds. And he isn't the only one.

If I may, here's a passage about the program from Overkill, the 2006 paper on police militarization that I wrote for the Cato Institute:

The city of St. Petersburg, Florida, bought an armored personnel carrier from the Pentagon for just $1,000. 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...

The New York Times reported in 1999 that the Fresno, California, SWAT team had two helicopters with night-vision goggles and heat sensors, a turret-armed armored personnel carrier, and an armored van…

A retired police chief in New Haven, Connecticut, told the Times in the 1999 article, "I was offered tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted."

In a 1997 60 Minutes segment on the trend toward militarization, the CBS news magazine profiled the Sheriff's Department of Marion County, Florida, a rural, agricultural area known for its horse farms. Courtesy of the various Pentagon giveaway programs, the county sheriff proudly showed reporter Lesley Stahl the department's 23 military helicopters, two C-12 luxury executive aircraft …a motor home, several trucks and trailers, a tank, and a "bomb robot." This, in addition to an arsenal of military-grade assault weapons.

As you can see, there was some media interest in this story about 10 years ago, but it largely died down, particularly after September 11. But the transfers didn't stop, and neither did the unfortunate trend toward a militaristic mindset that comes with domestic police officers using military equipment and tactics, and being told they're fighting a "war."

It's good to see the Globe to revisit this issue, and it's great that the paper's investigation seems to have won the attention of Massacusetts' elected officials. It would be even better if it could attract the attention of some members of Congress, who might stop this ill-considered program once and for all.