Since 2006, Kentucky law enforcement agencies have received armored cars, aircraft, automatic weapons and more from a U.S. military equipment transfer program that has come under fire in the wake of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
Data, obtained from the Pentagon by The New York Times, identifies transfers of surplus military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense’s “1033 program,” which funnels surplus gear to state and local police departments, to 90 of Kentucky’s 120 counties.
The records span from 2006 to May 2014, and place the value of the items—in various degrees of quality and offered for free to Kentucky agencies by the federal government—at about $38 million. Nationwide, the program has disbursed over $5 billion of equipment since its inception.
The program has been scrutinized by civil liberties advocates, citizens and elected officials across the U.S., who have been critical of law enforcement’s military-style response to protests in the Ferguson, a predominantly African-American suburb 12 miles north of St. Louis. The unrest occurred in the wake of the fatal police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown.
Mirroring a national trend, an analysis of the items disbursed by the program to Kentucky range from the mundane (socks, shirts, boots, electric generators) to the militaristic (M-16 rifles, .45 millimeter handguns, hundreds of ammunition clips, shotguns).
Records show that the vast majority of the items were funneled to Franklin County—Frankfort’s county seat—through the Kentucky State Police.
According to a KSP spokesman, the program works like this: Agencies can request an item and, if it’s in stock and falls within certain guidelines, a civilian employee of the KSP coordinates the item’s transfer via the Law Enforcement Support Office, a bureaucratic arm of the Defense Logistics Agency, which acts as the de facto clearinghouse for the program’s wares.
Following this, the police in Paducah can, for example, request through the KSP coordinator a mine-resistant armor-protected vehicle to augment its SWAT team. And the records show that that’s exactly what the Paducah Police Department, along with law enforcement agencies in rural Henderson County (pop. 46,513) and Kenton County, did.
As KFVS-12, Paducah’s CBS affiliate, reported on Feb. 19:
“The SWAT team will get on this vehicle when we are going to a high-risk search warrant or a barricaded subject,” SWAT Team Assistant Team Leader Chris Baxter said.
If you have seen military footage from Iraq and Afghanistan, this truck may look familiar.
“It’s able to take the troops into hostile areas for them military and we are using it here to protect our officers,” Captain Mark Roberts said.
Police admit they won’t be driving over any land mines, but the truck is an extra layer of protection from gunfire.
“It has no offensive capabilities at all,” Roberts said.
The total value of those vehicles—far below Blue Book value—is $1.48 million, according to records.
The biggest-ticket item included in the records is nebulously defined as a “fixed-wing aircraft,” valued at $3.1 million. A January 15 news release from the state Justice & Public Safety Cabinet touts the acquisition, identified as a 1984 Learjet 35. Its intended use: to rapidly deploy hostage negotiators and ferry members of the “executive branch from time to time as the need dictates, including for economic development purposes.”
“By registering with the surplus program and moving quickly when this opportunity became available, state police was able to procure an asset that would have otherwise been impossible, ” Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown said in the news release. “But that will have significant long term benefits for the Commonwealth.”
Trooper Paul Blanton, a KSP spokesman, said that, to his knowledge, the aircraft hasn’t been used.
“I don’t think anybody’s went anywhere to take it,” he said, adding that the plane was in need of repairs when they received it from the federal government.
By far, the largest single item in volume was men’s socks.
Sgt. Michael Webb, another KSP spokesman, said that the heavier equipment provided by the 1033 program is useful to combat events.
“There definitely is a need for military equipment in various functions for law enforcement, and for various reasons,” Webb said. “Now, the deployment of that particular type of technology, whatever—if it’s a weapon or it’s boots or uniform items or whatever—obviously is going to be very dependent upon the situation and the role of that unit.”
Webb said that, as in the case of the turmoil in Ferguson, the KSP is “prepared to deal with mass public unrest situations as needed,” in Kentucky. “We have contingency plans and training for that.”
The 1033 program was created by Congress in 1997, with roots in an earlier program, dubbed “1208” and run directly by the Pentagon, dating back to 1990. With 11,000 law enforcement agencies registered with the program, it serves as a clearinghouse for outdated military gear to beef up police departments nationwide.
Kate Miller, program director for the ACLU of Kentucky, said the tactics and mobilization of military equipment in Ferguson frightens people.
“That type of fear undermines the public trust in law enforcement, and it makes it more difficult for police to protect and serve,” Miller said. “That’s a real concern for our organization, and for many Americans and Kentuckians.”
She said that the national American Civil Liberties Union reviewed over 800 raids it deemed “paramilitary” conducted by law enforcement across the U.S. between 2011 and 2012.
According to an ACLU report, 80 percent of them were to conduct search warrants. And just over 60 percent of SWAT activity to search homes for drugs, and only 7 percent of those raids were for situations involving hostages, according to the report.
That report also found that communities of color like Ferguson are disproportionately targeted by SWAT action:
Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities. Of the deployments in which all the people impacted were minorities, 68 percent were in drug cases, and 61 percent of all the people impacted by SWAT raids in drug cases were minorities. In addition, the incidents we studied revealed stark, often extreme, racial disparities in the use of SWAT locally, especially in cases involving search warrants.
Politicians Weigh In
The White House has announced it’s leading a review of the 1033 program amid the violence in Ferguson and reports of missing equipment.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky’s Republican junior senator, decried the increasing militarized nature of American police in an op-ed in Time Magazine. His counterpart, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been silent on the issue.
This summer, all but one member of Kentucky’s U.S. House delegation—Republican Thomas Massie, whose district includes Northern Kentucky—voted against an amendment that sought to curtail the 1033 program.
Neither the U.S. Congress or state legislatures—including Kentucky’s, which has shrunk the KSP’s budget over the past several years—have oversight over the transfers.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said in a released statement that he hasn’t heard of any problems arising from the program in Kentucky. “I believe our law enforcement agencies have done a great job of protecting Kentuckians,” said Stumbo, a former state attorney general. “If there are any concerns, I would of course be open to discussing them to see what improvements can be made.”
Republican Senate President Robert Stivers could not be reached for comment.
Max Wise, the Republican senator-elect in Kentucky’s 16th senate district and a former FBI analyst, told CN|2 in an interview that while the program benefits local police, the response in Ferguson has been “too excessive.”
“I understand for some police departments where there could be a need for that,” Wise told CN|2. “But, for some towns… I don’t know if exactly that is the answer that we need to be looking for of weaponizing our local police departments that much.”
The Data: Eight Years Of Military Gear
A few caveats: The New York Times data only lists the recipient of the equipment down to the county level; it doesn’t specify which agency received what. And some items’ descriptions and values are missing from the set. The gaps in the data make up an extremely small percentage of the overall set.
Also, the data doesn’t represent all of the military equipment in the possession of Kentucky’s law enforcement agencies. Some federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration, provide grants to local and state law enforcement agencies to purchase similar equipment.
This visualization depicting the relation between counties and quantity of 1033 items.