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Local law enforcement nets military supplies through controversial Pentagon program

SWAT team members with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office leave the area after searching a home in Largo where two people were found shot dead in October. The Sheriff’s Office and five other law enforcement agencies in Pinellas — along with agencies throughout Tampa Bay — have bought numerous armored vehicles and weapons through the Defense Department’s 1033 program.
SWAT team members with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office leave the area after searching a home in Largo where two people were found shot dead in October. The Sheriff’s Office and five other law enforcement agencies in Pinellas — along with agencies throughout Tampa Bay — have bought numerous armored vehicles and weapons through the Defense Department’s 1033 program.
Published Jan. 3, 2015

More than a dozen Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies have participated for years in a controversial federal program that has beefed up the region's crime-fighting arsenal but in recent months has been the focus of a debate over how much firepower police need.

Temple Terrace police have picked up two grenade launchers through the program. The Hernando County Sheriff's Office got 200 military grade rifles. Four departments have tank-like trucks originally designed to repel roadside bombs on foreign battlefields.

The agencies obtained the equipment at bargain prices from the Pentagon, which makes the military surplus available to law enforcement across the country. Under the 1033 program, police departments can get rifles, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and other supplies for a small processing fee — basically the cost of shipping and handling.

Florida agencies have received nearly $300 million worth of equipment in the last couple of decades, according to federal defense records. In Tampa Bay, that includes $6.1 million in military supplies, including hundreds of rifles and five mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, known as MRAPs.

Officials say they need the weaponry to keep up with heavily armed criminals who can buy Army-grade assault rifles at local sporting goods stores. Police don't want to be outgunned when they roll up to a home or business where suspects are holed up with a cache of firearms.

"Law enforcement only became militarized when criminals became militarized," said Hernando sheriff's Lt. Michael Burzumato, citing the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. "You can't send law enforcement in there to combat that with pistols. . . . They're going to overpower you and destroy you, so we have to be able to rise to that level."

The high-powered equipment has drawn criticism in recent months as well-publicized clashes involving police and civilians have strained residents' relationships with authorities. Conflict this summer in Ferguson, Mo., where officers in combat gear shot tear gas canisters at people protesting the police killing of an unarmed black teen, has turned a spotlight on local law enforcement everywhere.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, has filed a bill to amend the 1033 program. And, under pressure last month from transparency advocates like the news website MuckRock, the Pentagon released a trove of information about the 1033 equipment it has handed out over the years.

Critics, especially the American Civil Liberties Union, say 1033 allows local authorities to arm themselves like they are going to war, scaring citizens and increasing the chance they will use too much force for relatively minor situations.

"I can't really imagine what they expect to happen that would require the tank and the grenade launchers," said Michelle Richardson, director of public policy for the ACLU in Florida. "I don't know if they expect Orlando to be invaded."

• • •

The 1033 program emerged out of the War on Drugs in the early 1990s, when Congress sought to equip local law enforcement for the fight against swelling drug networks and the violence connected to them.

Overseen by the Defense Logistics Agency, an arm of the Department of Defense, the program has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies. That includes everything from clothing and office supplies to guns and trucks not needed by the military. Five percent of the transfers include weaponry, according to the DLA, and 1 percent involve tactical vehicles.

Police departments use the equipment and take on liability, but they do not actually own it. Today, the DLA says it still distributes equipment first to offices that use the supplies to battle drug activity and terrorism. But the barrier to enter the program is so low that even school police departments have entered. Last year, Pinellas County schools police obtained 28 M-16 assault rifles through the 1033 program then returned them after questions were raised.

To shop for old military equipment through 1033, departments must show that they enforce laws as a primary function, that their officers are properly compensated and that their employees can arrest or apprehend suspects.

• • •

The Temple Terrace Police Department acquired two 40mm M-79 grenade launchers last year after the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office returned them, according to city spokesman Michael Dunn.

No one at the Sarasota Sheriff's Office can remember using the launchers, and a spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times that officials turned them back in because "they were cumbersome to use and nothing this agency needed."

The launchers would have cost $720 each used, but Dunn said Temple Terrace paid just $100 each to transfer them through 1033. "Our SWAT team on occasion has a need . . . to deploy chemical munitions such as gas and smoke from a distance accurately and safely," Dunn said. The weapons have never been used in an active crisis, he said.

The University of South Florida Police Department in Tampa acquired 20 rifles and a Humvee over several years, said Assistant Chief Chris Daniel. Some emergency situations might demand the use of rifles, Daniel said, citing the shooting at Florida State University in November. As for the Humvee, he said, officers use it to wade into flooded areas where people are stuck in cars, and it could be useful if a hurricane scattered debris across campus.

Daniel noted that the equipment comes used, sometimes needing significant repairs. When USFPD obtained the Humvee for $1,200, he said, it was missing gaskets and needed engine work.

• • •

In Pasco, the Sheriff's Office has over several years obtained a mine-resistant vehicle, 159 rifles (soon to be returned because they are outdated), and seven helicopters through the 1033 program, according to Defense Department records. But Sheriff Chris Nocco said the helicopters were not in flying shape and were used for parts to keep the agency's aviation unit in flight. This year, the department expects to save $60,000 in repairs after purchasing two helicopters from the program to use for parts.

Asked about criticism of the program, Nocco referenced terror attacks in Mumbai, India, which killed more than 150 people in 2008. "The irony of the criticism is the same individuals that criticize us for having these tools would be the same individuals who would criticize us if we can't respond to a Mumbai-style event," he said.

In both Pasco and Hernando, deputies use helicopters in search and rescue missions, manhunts and some other patrols. The Hernando Sheriff's Office also obtained nearly 200 rifles through 1033, which, according to Burzumato, have a significantly longer range than standard-issue police handguns.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the 1033 program is not about militarization. His office now has two MRAPs, six Humvees and two smaller armored "Peacekeeper" vehicles. The agency also purchased a pair of night vision goggles, worth $4,300, for just $1 about a decade ago.

The MRAPs were used once in March when a man in Kenneth City threatened his roommates with a shotgun, and again in October to shield the body of a man killed by a neighbor during a shooting in Largo. The recently acquired Humvees will be used during flooding, Gualtieri said. The "Peacekeeper" vehicles, acquired in 1997 for $500 each, are deployed during calls when deputies believe someone may be armed inside a building.

"The thing that's different now is more agencies, and especially smaller agencies, have it," Gualtieri said. "There's just more of it. Those of us in larger agencies, we have had this equipment or something similar or comparable to it for decades."

Not all departments have worked with the 1033 program. Gulfport police Chief Robert Vincent said forces across the county collaborate, so he has not felt the need.

"If I ever needed (a piece of equipment) I'm just a phone call away," he said. The chief said he has looked at 1033 "as an alternative" to buy rifles, but had concerns about the "quality standard" of some used gear.

• • •

Some contend that just possessing the equipment sends the wrong message.

"The police are here to serve and protect. They're peace officers," said Kofi Hunt, a project coordinator with the local progressive group Awake Pinellas. "They're not here to project an image of war."

The ACLU says police will find ways to use the equipment if the federal government gives it to them, regardless of necessity.

"As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," the group wrote in a June report. "Likewise, if the federal government gives the police a huge cache of military-style weaponry, they are highly likely to use it, even if they do not really need to."

Richardson, the Florida ACLU official, called on agencies to return their weaponry, saying that military equipment "should never be turned on civilians" and calling it "overkill for everyday policing."

Jolly, whose congressional district includes much of Pinellas County, has filed legislation that would require departments to show their officers are certified or trained on the equipment they acquire.

The bill is before the House Committee on Armed Services. Jolly said he supports the program because "law enforcement should have every piece of equipment necessary to ensure that the men and women that protect us everyday are protected," and he trusts local chiefs or sheriffs to determine what equipment they most need.

"The program helps taxpayers because the sheriff is going to buy this equipment one way or another," Jolly said.

Gualtieri supports the legislation but said he is concerned by competing bills that call for even more regulation.

"You just don't paint this broad brush if one person or one entity has done something improper or questionable," he said. "It's knee-jerk legislation that will hinder law enforcement."

The bill's fate will depend on whether Jolly's fellow lawmakers share his concerns. As for when it could move through the process, he said, that's "a bigger question of will Congress move on anything related to 1033."

Contact the reporters at zsampson@tampabay.com, cmcneill@tampabay.com, dsullivan@tampabay.com and lmorel@tampabay.com.