CUERO, Texas – Law enforcement agencies around the San Antonio area have taken in close to $10 million in excess military equipment, a KSAT Investigates analysis of the controversial federal program found.
The items, which would likely be destroyed otherwise, range from massive armored vehicles, to rifles and office supplies, Department of Defense records show.
The revelation comes amid continued criticism of the program, which some groups have blamed for contributing to the militarization of police in the United States.
Beginning in the early 1990′s, the U.S. Congress allowed the transfer of surplus equipment from the DoD to law enforcement agencies without charging them for it.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 established the current adaptation of the program, nicknamed the “1033 program” after the section of the Act that authorizes it. It is administered by the DoD’s Defense Logistics Agency.
To date, the program has moved more than $7.6 billion in equipment, the program’s website states.
Dr. Carsten Andresen, a policing expert and associate professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University, said law enforcement agencies taking in military hardware can then take on a “warrior mindset,” the idea that the police are an army that protects the public from enemies that want to hurt them.
“It absolutely does go against the grain of community policing. It absolutely sends the wrong message,” said Andresen.
“Most people in the public, right or left, don’t like the idea of a police agency treating them like people they are going to conquer and the police agency acting like they are the military,” said Andresen.
Andresen said research on the impact of the 1033 program on crime has produced mixed findings.
A 2017 study found agencies that had taken in military hardware were more likely to engage in high-risk operations.
A separate study released that same year found that agencies that took in surplus equipment saw a reduction in crime but had no impact on officers becoming overly aggressive with the public. Andresen points out, however, that use of force data used in this study was incomplete.
“They’ll take it and stockpile it”
The Cuero Police Department, located southeast of San Antonio, accepted more than $932,000 in surplus equipment between 2011 and 2017, DoD records show.
A majority of that total comes from a single item: an $865,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle acquired by the small department in 2016.
Chief Jay Lewis spoke glowingly of the massive piece of machinery as well as the 1033 program in general, which he said has helped his agency get much-needed gear without having to always rely on the city’s general fund.
The department’s MRAP, which Lewis said came from Texarkana, has been used in multiple barricaded subject calls and played a pivotal role in rescue efforts in the area during Hurricane Harvey.
“This is our SWAT vehicle, if it’s needed for that, but we don’t have another tactical vehicle,” said Lewis, who added that the vehicle has helped the department bond more closely with the public since it takes part in community events.
He said that his department has not accepted any equipment through the 1033 program since 2017 because it simply has not needed what was made available by the federal government.
Lewis did concede, however, that not all law enforcement entities are as particular as his.
“There are some agencies that take advantage of the property being available, and they’ll take it and stockpile it in hopes that they may need it in the future. We are not one of those agencies. We identify a need and find the equipment that we need through the 1033 program,” said Lewis.
The San Marcos Police Department is by far the biggest participant in the 1033 program in the San Antonio area, receiving more than $2.8 million in equipment from the DoD.
The items include a $733,000 MRAP, night vision scopes, thermal imaging equipment and a digital video camera system.
While SMPD shared media files of its MRAP in use, it was among the law enforcement agencies that declined interview requests from KSAT Investigates to discuss how the ex-military assets are utilized.
An SMPD spokeswoman, in a written statement, said the MRAP is used as a rescue vehicle and has no offensive capabilities, meaning it is not used as an attack vehicle.
Boerne Police officials also declined an on-camera interview request regarding its MRAP, which it acquired in 2014.
Instead, in a written statement, a city spokesperson said:
“The MRAP has been a vital tool in our department since receiving it in 2014. On multiple occasions, our partners in Kendall County have requested it be placed on standby during emergency calls. Luckily, the situations were able to be resolved before full deployment. On two separate occasions, the vehicle has also been deployed to rescue Boerne and Comfort-area residents trapped inside their home during flash flooding events. Given our geographical location and potential response time from other agencies the vehicle provides our officers with the necessary tools they need to serve the residents of Boerne most effectively during a potentially high-risk emergency situation.”
A spokeswoman for the Schertz Police Department said the agency is now looking for alternative ways to acquire specialized equipment instead of utilizing the 1033 program.
“For example, it is SPD’s plan to surrender the 50 rifles received through 1033 back to the government once we receive the new rifle platform we were able to acquire through the normal budget process,” the spokeswoman said via email.
Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, whose agency also got an MRAP in 2014, said the vehicle is currently not operable due to issues with its brakes. He said that the agency has had difficulty finding a mechanic in the area able to work on the MRAP’s brake system.
Lewis also mentioned previous brake issues with Cuero PD’s MRAP but said the department found a mechanic in the area familiar with working on that type of military vehicle.
Other area law enforcement agencies that have taken part in the 1033 program are the Comal County Sheriff’s Office, Crystal City Police Department, Del Rio Police Department, Encinal Police Department, Fredericksburg Police Department, Hays County Sheriff’s Office, Jourdanton Police Department, Kendall County Sheriff’s Office, Kyle Police Department, LaCoste Police Department, La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, Live Oak Police Department, Maverick County Sheriff’s Office, Poteet Police Department, Seguin Police Department and Zavala County Sheriff’s Office.
A spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency defended the 1033 program, and specifically the transfer of guns from the DoD to law enforcement agencies, in a written statement sent earlier this month:
“Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) submit requests and justifications for excess property to the Governor-appointed State Coordinator. If the State Coordinator approves, the request is forwarded to DOD’s Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) for final review and approval. In terms of stockpiling small arms weapons, LESO issues small arms to LEAs on a one-to-one basis, i.e. one small arm per law enforcement officer assigned. The Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the LEA, or their designee, must acknowledge in writing the justification for the number of small arms requested. Stockpiling of LESO provided small arms shouldn’t occur, as LESO monitors the allocations to ensure quantities conform to the one-to-one ratio. When a law enforcement agency wants to return a controlled item such as a small arm, it must be returned to DOD or it can be transferred to another LEA in the program with the approval of the State Coordinator and LESO. LESO reviewed the data for the entire state of Texas and confirmed there are no LEAs in the state that are over-allocated small arms.”
Small arms, which include handguns and pistols, make up less than two percent of equipment transferred since the inception of the 1033 program, while tactical vehicles have made up less than one percent of equipment transferred during that time frame.
Other eligible items include helmets, body armor surveillance equipment and even aircraft.