Part 1: Federal program fuels militarization of police

Illustration by Nicole Thill/Arizona Sonora News
Nicole Thill / Arizona Sonora News

Millions of dollars in military- grade armaments flow into Arizona communities with minimal standards for training or oversight on how the equipment is being used.

An Arizona Sonora News investigation shows towns stocked with mine resistant vehicles, grenade launchers, assault rifles and tear gas — all the discards of war.

Proponents of the federal program that offers up the armaments say it saves money for cities. Opponents paint a darker picture: heavily armed law enforcement with what opponents call inadequate oversight and standards for handling cache of weapons.

To them, this military hardware welfare system marks a disconcerting move toward militarization among police departments with an increasing “us vs. them” attitude where suspects can become the enemy.

They offer recent events as evidence of police overreaction: the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Gardner in New York City, the suspect shot in the back while fleeing police in South Carolina, and Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal injury while in police custody in Baltimore.

The 1033 Program

The Payson Police Department is in the middle of the Tonto National Forest. It sits one hour north of Phoenix and shares a complex with the town hall and water department—a fortress in a town barricaded by mountains.

It’s a small police department in a small town where Andy Griffith would feel at home, but it has a big job.

It runs Arizona’s division of the 1033 program.

The program, established by Congress in 1997 as the National Defense Authorization Act, distributes excess military equipment to police agencies throughout the nation.

The approval and review of all applicants to the program, the allocation of equipment, training to any agencies that wish to have it and regular audits of departments all are handled by two people in Payson, detective Matt Van Camp and a unpaid volunteer named Maria Davis.

Payson pays Van Camp’s salary, and the town cannot afford the four additional hires he believes are needed to run the program efficiently.

Payson became the state coordinator in 2008 when the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department opted out. State officials begin recruiting another.

“They went to the highway patrol, they went to Phoenix PD, they went to all the large agencies, they went to the Arizona Department of Administration, they went to the Arizona Emergency Management division,” Van Camp said. “They went to all these agencies and none of them would accept to be the state coordinators office.”

So the state decided to cancel the program. Every department would have to give back their 1033 equipment.

“Which, for my agency was bad,” Van Camp said. “We have equipment that we use for crime scenes, there’s just too much benefit to our agency.”

So Van Camp, with the approval of his department, raised his hand. He met with the old state coordinator who told him it would only be about two to three hours a week of extra time.

He was wrong.

“It’s been extremely more of a burden,” Van Camp said. “My salary, any other ancillary travel, we go off and do audits of agencies on a regular basis, so we’re travelling, we’re spending money, so we have no financial backing except for from Payson police department budget.”

As of April 23, the 1033 program has $46,703,792 worth of military equipment spread between 80 programs in the state. Since its inception the program has distributed $5.4 billion worth of military equipment nationally. In 2014, the program distributed $980 million.

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The Payson Police Department, a small department with only 28 sworn officers, coordinates Arizona’s 1033 program. Photo by Daniel Desrochers/Arizona Sonora News

Some of that equipment is small stuff. It’s desks, chairs, sleeping bags and first aid kits. Useful supplies for departments like Pinetop-Lakeside when they have to travel to fight fires and all the hotels are booked.

According to Dan Barnes, the support services commander for Pinetop-Lakeside Police Department, if they weren’t able to get those items through 1033, the officers would have to buy their own.

The program designates its equipment by two codes, commercial and controlled. The commercial products are the smaller, everyday supplies like desks and first aid kits. The controlled products are the expensive equipment, like guns and MRAPs. The departments have to track controlled items until they’ve run them to the ground. Then they have to send them back to the military.

For a police department to get a rifle, helicopter or armored vehicle, officials must go through a number of bureaucratic procedures.

“There’s memos they have to write me, justification letters, why they feel they can use it, how can it benefit their community,” Van Camp said.

From there, the request must be approved by the Department of Defense.

Agencies must keep an inventory. Van Camp and Davis audit departments every year to ensure that they have the weapons and equipment that have been given to them. The federal government audits the Arizona 1033 program every two years.

“Number one priority is accountability of property,” Van Camp said.

When agencies fail to keep track of their inventory, like Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department did in 2014, they get kicked out.

Police departments see the 1033 program as if they are shopping in the military’s closet, saving money for taxpayers and equipping their departments in the meantime.

“At the end of the day it’s something that allows our agency and our residents to save money on items that have already been purchased,” said Clinton Norred, a Yuma Police Department spokesman.

Normally, if a police department wants an armored vehicle they have to get a civilian made BearCat, which can cost up to $300,000, or the larger B.E.A.R. Often, the departments will rely on donations or federal grants.

“Grants are very competitive, dollars have been a little bit tougher to come by,” Norred said.

But opponents of the 1033 program see the challenge of obtaining money to get an armored vehicle as a good thing.

“It forces them to kind of think through how to use these weapons,” said Alessandra Soler the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

The Militarization

Pete Kraska, an established expert on the militarization of police forces in the United States, is the chair of graduate studies and research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He is a vocal opponent of the 1033 program.

Calling it a militarization of police forces, opponents like Kraska point to the access to military grade equipment as a breeding ground for aggressive policing.

“It sort of incentivizes unnecessary and aggressive police,” said Soler.

In particular, opponents point to equipment like an MRAP, mine resistant vehicles that were used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the military, as excessive for police departments.

There are no guns on an MRAP, it’s strictly a defensive vehicle, but it contributes to a military mindset, critics say.

“When I ask these agencies what is your operational justification for this, all we get are ‘what if ‘ scenarios,” Kraska said. “And in the community that they’re in, they probably can’t even come up with an example in the past 50 years, of one of those examples.”

For Lt. Johnny John, who is in charge of the SWAT team for Tempe Police, those ‘what if’ situations are very real. He was the one who made a push to get an MRAP, which is valued from $658,000 to $733,000, to replace their old, donated armored coin truck that kept breaking down.

“It’s just better safe than sorry,” John said.

Some of those ‘what if’ scenarios have been seen by departments in the state. The Tempe Police Department used their MRAP once, in pursuit of a suspect who was shooting at people in South Phoenix. After they thought they had the man trapped in the attic of a house, they brought out the MRAP to give officers protected access.

“We were able to park the vehicle next to the house to be able to pry the attic vent open,” said Mike Pooley, the public information officer for the Tempe Police Department. “When we pried that open, our officers were surrounded by ballistic protection. They were able to get in there, look, make sure, clear it out with mirrors and other things we had to get a good vantage point if somebody was in there.”

The suspect had gotten away, but that doesn’t minimize the utility of the MRAP, according to Pooley.

“We look for any advantage over a suspect that we can,” Pooley said. “We have a lot of technology that we can use and this is one piece of equipment that we feel will definitely protect our officers, will protect our citizens.”

One of those advantages is the intimidation factor that comes with an MRAP. But, when it comes to dealing with the public, that intimidation factor can backfire.

Jeff Wick / The Daily Wildcat Tucson PD and riot police try to control an angry crowd after the Wildcat basketball game Saturday night.
Jeff Wick / The Daily Wildcat
Tucson police  try to control an angry crowd after a Wildcat basketball game last year..

The Tempe Police Department recognizes that possessing an MRAP is controversial. When they first got theirs, they put around $15,000 into changes.

They removed the outermost shell of armor, which took off about 10,000 pounds. They then painted the vehicle black, added decals and police lights, installed cameras on the front and back and gutted the inside so that it can fit up to 30 people.

The Yuma Police Department didn’t remove the outer shell of armor from theirs, but they did add police lights and decals so that the public could recognize it as a police vehicle.

Tempe generally doesn’t bring its MRAP to public events, but they still try to be transparent about their armor.

Most of the time, however, Tempe’s MRAP sits in a garage next to a DUI van.

“We don’t just take it out to go and stop people,” Pooley said. “We use it for tactical situations, where there’s life and death situations, where the last resort is something that we have in our garage.”

Opponents like Kraska understand that military-grade weapons and equipment are rarely used.

“But it absolutely has a clear, cultural impact on these departments,” He added. “Where they’re thinking of themselves and behaving in a way that is much more militaristic and much less democratic.”

In Payson, Van Camp rejects the argument that police forces are being militarized.

“The militarization is just a word that people are using,” Van Camp said. “There is no militarization from this program.”

Kraska sees militarization as not as much equipment gathered, but by the attitude of those who would use such goods.

“If they want to get a microwave oven who cares? If they want to get a refrigerator, who cares?” said Kraska. “But an MRAP is inappropriate, military weaponry is inappropriate. It would not be hard to delineate what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”

The Military Attitude

Kraska has been studying the militarization of police departments since 1989.

“Overall this police militarization trend started in the late 1980s,” Kraska said. “It kept marching forward all the way until 9/11 and then of course escalated after 9/11 and nobody has cared.”

With the recent riots in Ferguson and now in Baltimore, politicians are beginning to take notice. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice advises that all police officers wear body cameras and called for a review of police tactics and training, in hopes of reducing excessive force lawsuits.

In recent years, cities nationwide have had to pay out in the hundreds of millions of dollars to settle such lawsuits.

In Tucson, in 2011, Pima County SWAT officers killed a U.S. Marine veteran named Jose Guerena during an overnight drug raid. The officers fired 71 rounds, striking Guerena 22 times.

Pima County, along with Sahuarita, Marana and Oro Valley, settled with Guerena’s widow for $3.4 million.

“The bigger picture problem here is that a lot of these weapons is billed as tools that are going to enhance public safety and in the end they end up doing the opposite,” said Soler.

Training for equipment received through the 1033 program is largely up to the department with little oversight from the Department of Defense. While Van Camp said that there will be a meeting with all of the 1033 state coordinators within the month to discuss a nationalized training standard, right now the training officers have to get in Arizona is different than what officers in California could get with the same equipment.

While the officers get training on the equipment that they need, that doesn’t mean that they get enough training on how to deal with the public.

For Laurence Miller, a psychologist who works closely with law enforcement officers, an aspect of the lack of community policing comes from a lack of training in communication.

“You act the way you’re trained,” Miller said. “If someone is trained adequately to deal with a wide variety of situations, not just tactically, not just in terms of when to use your baton and when to use your pepper spray and when to use your Taser, but also in terms of communication skills training. The more training officers receive, the better they’re able to deal with a wide variety of situations.”

Miller teaches classes to police officers and tries to emphasize the importance of talking to the community. He calls police officers street psychologists.

“Ninety percent of what a police officer does out there on patrol is talking to people,” Miller said. “It’s all about talking.”

Soler sees the lack of communications training in anecdotal evidence at the ACLU.

“The reality is that they’re using these weapons in poor communities and communities of color are the ones being victimized by these kinds of weapons,” Soler said.

Both Kraska and Soler pointed out that access to this military grade equipment has led to an increase in SWAT style raids across the country.

“You’re using these weapons to engage in these really aggressive policing tactics including these SWAT style raids for a lot of times minor drug offenses,” Soler said.

Lack of oversight

Van Camp keeps track of the inventory from the 1033 program, but there’s no oversight as to how the police use the weapons and equipment they obtain.

If a civilian calls in with a complaint, he checks it out, but as long as the department is following the rules of the 1033 program, there’s nothing he can do.

“I’m relying on the integrity of that police agency and the person managing the program at that agency to have integrity, morals and ethics,” Van Camp said.

Relying on integrity isn’t enough for Kraska.       

“They get to completely on their own, mire in their own warrior fantasies, their own perceptions of what it means to be a militarized police department and conduct themselves however they want until some horrible disaster happens and they get sued,” Kraska said. “This happens all over the country.”

Departments like Tempe acknowledge that sometimes department’s misuse and abuse their equipment, whether or not it comes from the 1033 program.

“History will show you that there’s always been abuses of equipment like this, or times when equipment is not used appropriately,” Pooley said.

Van Camp works as a strategist when it comes to placing MRAPs in the state. He looks at the regions that could potentially need armor when requests for an MRAP come in.

“We look at a broader size of allocations where we can get armor,” Van Camp said. “I’d like to have another piece of armor up in Northeast Arizona, but I just don’t have that. I don’t have an agency up there that would get it.

Van Camp said that he aims to have it so that an MRAP is within a two-hour drive of every part of the state, but nine out of the 13 are in the middle of the state, with four in the greater Phoenix area.

Van Camp sees the military equipment as an invaluable way to protect officers and citizens.

“I think there’s a balance that has to be made of protection of citizens,” he said. “I think the citizens want us to protect them from gunfire.”

With that responsibility to keep people safe, police departments also have a responsibility to be accountable to the citizens in their community.

“The police have an extraordinary amount of power,” Soler said. “They can arrest you, they can detain you, they can shoot you, they can kill you and with that power comes the need for accountability and transparency and more often than not, these departments are not transparent.”

Dan Desrochers is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News. He can be reached at ddesrochers@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

For high resolution photos click here.

Editors note: The Tempe Police Department spent $15,000 to fix its MRAP, not $50,000. The story has been revised to reflect that correction.