“We were the very first agency in the state of Alabama to get stuff from the 1033 program,” Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said Thursday, holding up an M14 sniper rifle, a high-powered Vietnam War-era piece of technology originally intended for the military.
Guns, night vision goggles, combat boots, helmets, sleeping bags, tents, computer equipment, five Humvees, two armored personnel carriers and a high-powered boat: It’s just a small taste of the cache of equipment the Sheriff’s Office has been able to collect through the Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program, commonly called the 1033 Program among law enforcement agencies.
Through the Department of Defense, police departments and sheriff’s offices across the United States can use the program to apply for obsolete, unused or unneeded military surplus supplies. All of it is free; the only burden placed on any given department is to transport the merchandise to its headquarters and for storage and maintenance of whatever it acquires.
Although the program was implemented by congressional act in 1997, use has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Defense Logistics Agency, in 2010 there were 27,000 requests filed in the 1033 program with more than $212 million worth of equipment distributed to local law enforcement agencies. In 2011, that number ballooned to more than 40,000 requests and close to $500 million in equipment. Through May 15 of this year the program has already seen the number of requests surpass 2011’s mark while $372 million in equipment has been handed over to agencies all over the country.
Some of them are right here in Calhoun County. Jacksonville Police Chief Tommy Thompson said it’s been a decade since the police department got a four-wheel-drive military truck through 1033, but within the last month he has reapplied to join the program. The first thing on his wish list, Thompson said, is a small vehicle that could possible patrol the Chief Ladiga Trail.
“The program is really helpful in this economy,” said Thompson, explaining that every piece of federal equipment from armored tanks to computer printers is available through the program. “It’s better than throwing it in the trash.”
One agency that’s probably taken that to heart is Oxford Police Department, which has stockpiled over $3 million in military equipment, including an armored tank, from the Department of Defense. Its use of the 1033 Program has even earned it special recognition from the Department of Defense, which presented OPD with a certificate for hitting the $3 million mark.
Amerson said he doesn’t know the total price tag of the Sheriff’s Office 1033 equipment but said it has more than monetary value.
“I don’t have a budget for this,” Amerson said, tapping a helmet and a chest plate in a storage garage in back of the Sheriff’s Office. “Calhoun County Commission will pay for uniforms or boots, but they don’t give us a budget for helmets or cots or tents.”
But when it comes to using excessive military gear, not everyone thinks it’s a great idea for small law enforcement agencies to have access to high-powered weapons and armored vehicles. Mark Lanier, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, said while 1033 provides great economic benefit to a lot of agencies, the image of “community policing,” including bicycle patrols and local activism, could be eroded by the militarization of small police departments.
“You see those pictures of LAPD driving down streets in armored tanks,” Lanier said. “That’s really not the modern-day image police departments want to promote.”
It’s a point Amerson concedes when describing the fact the Sheriff’s Office has an M16 for every deputy as “a little spooky.”
Yet, he said, “In this day and age of people shooting at law enforcement officers, being able to improve our response to that is important.”
And it’s more than just tanks and guns. Amerson said things like gas masks, tents and computers don’t have a militarized quality to them that frighten people, but are still just as valuable for agencies to have.
The key, Amerson said, is to be “judicious” with what the Sheriff’s Office takes from the program. If there’s no space or use for it, nor the money to maintain it, then it’s simply not worth having.
“This program is a sensible use of the public’s money if you use it right,” Amerson said.