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Cops or troops?: Just how militarized are SLO County's law enforcement organizations? 

Ferguson, Mo., is roughly 2,000 miles away from San Luis Obispo, but the reverberations echoing from the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests have registered loud and clear in local ears.

Brown’s death further revealed many long-standing fault lines in American society, including race, class, and individual freedom vs. authority.

Among the most immediate and talked-about issues stemming from Ferguson, though, was a rather basic and self-evident one: the militarization of local law enforcement.

The impetus for this discussion was a series of jarring and widely seen images of local, suburban Missouri cops riding in armored vehicles, wearing camouflage and body armor, and wielding riot shields, assault rifles, and tear gas canisters to dispel protesters.

As it happens, much of that military equipment came courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense’s “1033 Program.” Initiated in 1990 as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the program provides excess military equipment to local law enforcement for free or at heavily discounted rates.

The program was conceived as a win-win partnership between overwhelmed local cops at the peak of the stateside “war on drugs” and the bloated military at the tail end of the Gulf War.

Critics, however, argued (and continue to argue) that by supplying police with attractive military gear largely free of charge, the DoD is improperly encouraging police to become more and more militaristic.

Though the exact nomenclature and classification of the 1033 Program have changed slightly over its 24 years of existence, the core principle has remained unchanged: large amounts of military equipment being offloaded to local cops.

To be precise, according to the program’s website, $5.1 billion of property (based on initial acquisition cost) has been transferred since 1997.

The DoD cites “more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies” that have enrolled in the 1033 Program. Even in relatively rural San Luis Obispo County, New Times found that all major law enforcement agencies save the Morro Bay Police Department have participated in the program to some degree.

When asked by New Times, local law enforcement agencies were uniformly able to disclose all the 1033 equipment in their possession, but unable to provide figures for costs incurred in transporting and maintaining the equipment.

Most of SLO County’s seven city police departments have had fairly minimal involvement with the program. The Grover Beach Police Department, for example, acquired four M16-style rifles in 2003 as their sole 1033 items, but the guns have been sitting unused in the city armory ever since.

“We want to give them back, because we don’t use them,” said Grover Beach Police Cmdr. John Peters. “They’re from the Vietnam era, very old, and not in good condition.”

The police departments in Atascadero and Pismo Beach have one and two pairs of night vision goggles, respectively.

Several other police departments (including Paso Robles, Atascadero, and Pismo Beach) procured a few M16-style rifles back in the 2000s, but have since transferred those rifles to other law enforcement agencies or have given them back to the DoD.

“We actually returned the last of our 1033 Program items the other week,” said Paso Robles PD Lt. Ty Lewis. “The program has been productive for us in the past, but it’s not as necessary in the present.”

Not all agencies, however, share Lewis’ point of view. At the mid-level of participation, Arroyo Grande Police Department Chief Steve Annibali said the 1033 Program has been highly useful for his agency.

“We got more involved with 1033 about four years ago,” Annibali said. “We’ve gotten a flat-bed truck, two Humvees, mechanic tools, duffel bags, backpacks, kneepads, and two portable generators.

“Lots of things we get are not war fighting equipment, and the vast majority of stuff is very civilian-ized,” he added. “It’s worked out very well for us.”

Unsurprisingly, the two largest law enforcement agencies in the county—the San Luis Obispo Police Department and the SLO County Sheriff’s Office—have also been the two major participants in the 1033 Program.

Both agencies have acquired hundreds of items through the program, which they disclosed to New Times in itemized spreadsheets.

Among the items procured by the Sheriff’s Office (from 2000 to present), are 85 rifle magazines, a thermal camera, two Humvees, 25 “bayonet knives,” seven “laser range finders,” and four “camouflage screening/net systems.”

“There are kinds of crime which may not be happening on a daily basis here in SLO County, but we still have to be prepared for them, because they could happen at any time,” said Undersheriff Tim Olivas. “We recognize that we are a law-enforcement agency tasked with providing for safety of community, and that’s what this equipment is intended to do.”

When asked how the 25 bayonet knives are providing for the safety of the community, Cmdr. Brian Hascall said that they are “specialty knives” used by snipers in the field.

“Without getting into too much detail, they have an application out in the field,” Hascall said. “We’ve been very selective in what we choose.”

When asked if he gives any credence to worries about over-militarization of local law enforcement, Olivas said he does not.

“I wouldn’t say that we are over-militarized, but law enforcement is a para-military organization by the way it operates; we have chain of command and we have ranks,” Olivas said. “I don’t think this equipment makes police organizations militarized, it just provides them with equipment to do the job they’re tasked with.”

At SLOPD, items procured through the 1033 Program between 2011 and 2014 include 10 AR15 rifles, 540 magazines of rifle ammo, 65 night vision goggles, 60 “riot control kits,” 50 bayonets, and a bomb robot.

“Our participation in the program has really been just since 2011,” SLOPD Capt. Chris Staley said. “Some new officers we hired in 2011 knew about 1033, were very invested in it, and started trying to find stuff.”

Staley also said he doesn’t buy into fears about police over-militarization, and defended the 1033 Program as a helpful force.

“For most of these things, they’re not essential pieces of equipment, but they are very helpful pieces of equipment,” Staley said. “We have a budget, but it’s mostly for essentials.

“I don’t see credence in saying police are militarized; we’re providing our officers with the best equipment to do their jobs safely,” he added. “If military equipment can help us to do that job, good. I want my guys to have an advantage and the best equipment possible.”

At the other end of the local spectrum, the Morro Bay Police Department has never participated in the 1033 Program in any capacity.

“We’re a smaller agency, so based on resources and what we need, we choose not to participate,” said Cmdr. Bryan Millard. “We’re a professional municipal police department, and we are public servants. We equip ourselves the way the community would like us to be equipped.”

Nationally, opinion is divided about the 1033 Program. Many people have defended the program as efficient and necessary for cash-strapped local police departments. Others have called for an immediate end to the program.

Reuters reported on Aug. 23 that President Barack Obama has “ordered a review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police out of concern at how such equipment has been used during racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Obama, in an Aug. 18 press conference, also mentioned that “there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred.”


Contact Staff Writer Rhys Heyden at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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