Crime isn’t exactly rampant in the Yakima Valley town of Grandview, population 10,862.
In 2013, the city had three robberies, six aggravated assaults and 10 rapes. There were no homicides in the city last year.
But that didn’t stop the Grandview Police Department from utilizing the Defense Department’s surplus materiel program to equip a tactical team made up of 10 of its 17 officers with an assortment of items that read like a sort of SWAT-in-a-box.
Over a few years, the department received 1,400 pounds of expended brass cartridges for reloading, five sets of $3,000 night-vision goggles, 14 laser-sights, five rifles, ammo magazines and bandoleers, and medic and survival kits, all at little or no cost.
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The biggest-ticket item is a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, known as an MRAP, which the Defense Department valued at $412,000.
Grandview Assistant Police Chief Mike Hopp acknowledges the routine need for a tactical police response in Grandview can be limited. The department’s well-equipped tactical team is available to other jurisdictions if they ask, he said.
“We use it. It keeps our guys safe,” he said of the MRAP. “But we don’t use it a lot.”
Grandview police are among scores of law-enforcement agencies in Washington state that have received more than $21 million worth of military hardware, ranging from thermal underwear and medic kits to assault rifles and mine-resistant vehicles, according to the latest accounting of the popular Defense Department surplus materiel program.
Agencies from Aberdeen to Yakima have taken advantage of the Defense Department’s so-called “1033” program, authorized by Congress in 1991 to allow surplus and outdated military items to make their way to police agencies.
However, accusations that America’s police forces, small and large, are becoming militarized have become a rallying cry at protests over the use of deadly force by police against unarmed civilians, particularly African-American young men and boys.
Critics say the virtually unrestricted distribution of military-style hardware to law-enforcement agencies leads to more confrontation between police and the communities, and potentially the use of more force in resolving them.
“If you have it, you want to use it,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a widely published expert on civil liberties, policing and criminal justice. “And then you start seeing yourself in military terms.”
Under the 1033 program, thousands of military items — big and small, lethal and innocuous — have been provided to any law-enforcement agency that fills out an application. In some cases, the military paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the items. Police get them for a nominal fee, usually the equivalent of shipping and handling.
The King County Sheriff’s Office, for example, in 2012 received a “utility helicopter” valued at $922,000. Spokeswoman Sgt. DB Gates said the chopper has been used for parts for the department’s other helicopters, although there are plans to restore it to flight condition in the near future.
Seventeen agencies, including the Grandview PD, have received the mine-resistant MRAPs, which cost the military between $412,000 and $733,000. The Lynnwood Police Department, which received an MRAP in 2013, shares it with several other agencies as part of the North Sound Metro SWAT team, said Lynnwood police Cmdr. Jim Nelson.
Many agencies welcome the program, saying it provides them with sophisticated and expensive equipment most would struggle to afford otherwise. However, police accountability experts say the unintended effect has been the “militarization” of U.S. law enforcement, which has undermined the role police have traditionally played in their communities.
“It has changed the mindset of police,” said Walker, the criminal-justice scholar.
“In some cases it has swept away the community-policing paradigm, and the result is that law enforcement has begun to think that its primary mission is national security,” he said.
Images of Ferguson
The issue has resonated during the protests after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Mo., where the police response included armor-clad officers and a military-style presence.
In June, even before the Ferguson protests, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.”
It decried the widespread use of heavily armed SWAT teams to serve warrants for minor drug crimes, concluding that “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”
Earlier this month, President Obama, saying he wanted to ensure the U.S. isn’t building a “militarized culture” within police departments, announced the creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to study the issue.
Obama said he will issue an executive order that will require federal agencies that run the programs to consult with law-enforcement and civil-rights and civil-liberties organizations and recommend changes within four months to make sure the programs are accountable and transparent.
According to the most recent lists posted by the Defense Logistics Agency and testimony provided to the U.S. Senate, the 1033 program has provided more than $5 billion in military-grade equipment to U.S. law-enforcement agencies. Millions of those items fall into the category of “tactical equipment,” such as firearms and mine-resistant armored vehicles.
In Washington state, from 1996 to November 2014 — the most recent data available — 3,718 tactical items have gone to more than 100 agencies. That number includes 927 assault rifles, 58 handguns, 19 riot guns, 17 MRAPs, 24 armored trucks, 21 night-vision sniper scopes, 22 bomb-disposal robots and 73 bayonets — that latter for use, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state agency that acquired most of them, as “survival knives.”
Popular items include rifle sights, helmets, medic kits, camouflage uniforms and clothing, body armor and tools. The program has also provided gym equipment, sleeping bags, tents, desks, chairs and even buckets and mops, according to a spreadsheet posted on the Defense Logistic Agency’s website.
Many of these items would be prohibitively expensive for the agencies to purchase themselves. The Centralia Police Department got its MRAP for the cost of shipping and handling, amounting to a few hundred dollars, said Centralia Police Chief Robert Berg.
The Seattle Police Department has received only a handful of items over the years, including binoculars and several pairs of protective eyeglasses.
Not in the budget
Berg praised the 1033 program for giving his department the opportunity to obtain equipment that it would never be able to afford otherwise. His department has received two bomb-disposal robots, several armored trucks and 30 rifles, one for each patrol officer.
The MRAP has been used once since it was obtained in 2013, he said, during the arrest of a barricaded suspect. The armored trucks have a high ground clearance and have proved handy during frequent flooding in the area.
“We do try to keep in mind our mission, regardless of the equipment we use,” Berg said. “We emphasize a guardian approach to law enforcement, rather than a warrior approach.”
That said, Berg noted that arming his officers with assault rifles is a nod to the reality that police officers face dangers today they didn’t when he became a cop in the early 1970s.
While the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks may have focused police on national security, Berg and others believe the need for more firepower was best demonstrated by the 1997 robbery of a North Hollywood, Calif., bank by a pair of heavily armed and armored robbers.
Eleven Los Angeles police officers and eight civilians were wounded before the pair — armed with assault rifles and wearing head-to-toe body armor — were killed. Police, unable to stop the men with handguns and shotguns, had to break into a local gun store to obtain weapons powerful enough to fight back.
“That was a defining moment,” Berg said.
One of the biggest recipients of firearms from the 1033 program is the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which received 171 modified M4 and M14 rifles. Firearms going to police from the military are usually converted to semi-automatic use.
Fish and Wildlife Police Chief Steve Crown said the weapons are “utility rifles” used not only for law-enforcement purposes, but by rangers who sometimes have to “put down” injured animals.
“You also need to remember that almost everybody we contact is armed,” he added. “My people operate in remote locations, often by themselves. These are valuable tools that can be used in multiple situations.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the police department at Central Washington University, which has received two items: a single M14 rifle and a $65,000 armored truck. The rifle, said Chief Mike Luvera, is in an office safe and has never been used. “Nobody is certified to fire it,” he said.
The truck is used by the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office, where one of Luvera’s officers also has served on a countywide emergency-response team.
“We got it because we did the paperwork,” he said.
Mike Carter: email@example.com or 206-464-3706