Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness remembers when police were outmatched and poorly armed.
Ask anyone who came up against a heavily-armed and militarized police force in Ferguson, Mo., this summer and they’ll say that’s not the case anymore.
Over the past 20 years the Department of Defense has outfitted municipal police, county sheriffs and school districts with surplus equipment via its “1033 program.”
A state database reviewed by this news organization shows that in Southern California, those items ranged from swords and bayonets to grenade launchers, armored trucks and military helicopters.
The database, maintained by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, tracks federal weapons and equipment given out through the program, including $150 million of surplus shipped to Southland law enforcement agencies since 1993.
Police say the more than 418,000 pieces of equipment filled budgetary gaps by providing not only costly weapons and vehicles, but items like nuts and bolts, coffee makers, cold weather clothing and sleeping bags.
But civil rights activists and lawmakers, like U.S. representatives Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, question the need for the military-style assault weapons and heavily armored vehicles — like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP — that are finding their way into the hands of school officials and suburban police departments.
“I am shocked by the types of things that are being sent to school districts and our police departments,” Chu said. “Our police departments have to work with the community and they are not supposed to imply that we are in a police state or at war. They should be equipped to be safe but that doesn’t require a grenade launcher.”
“The 1033 program can be valuable — as in getting out bulletproof vests, for instance — but it’s hard to see what the right use for an MRAP vehicle would be for our police departments,” Schiff said. “Cameras would be a much better thing to spend money on.”