The recent wave of civil unrest against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd highlights the increased militarization of American law enforcement — including for officers on college campuses.
Data from the Defense Logistics Agency shows more than 100 college and university police departments receive military surplus gear through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, also known as the Law Enforcement Support Office. The program was authorized by Congress in 1991 as a way to help law enforcement fight a new surge in drug-related crime. It allows the transfer of excess Defense Department equipment to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including colleges, universities and K-12 police departments.
According to the Defense Logistics Agency, which administers the program, the majority of things it provides include office equipment, furniture, military clothing items, first aid kits, computers, and similar supplies referred to as “non-controlled” or “general” equipment. Items like weapons, ammunition, and armored vehicles are in the “controlled category” and even include sniper sights and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs).
‘Look At The Threat Matrix’
University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell has considered student perceptions of his police department as a result of the 1033 program and has shared his recommendations to divest from it with university leadership since 2014.
On his first day last week as the university’s new president, Dr. Daryll J. Pines announced in a tweet that UMD would divest from the program altogether.
Mitchell said the decision to back away from the 1033 program has been ongoing since the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. At the time, he was approached by students who asked why university police were so heavily armed. Mitchell has been a law enforcement officer in the Washington region for decades and recognized that the perception of a militarized campus police force does more harm than good.
The department is in the process of returning all equipment it has received through the program to the Department of Defense. But it can still acquire military-style tactical equipment through traditional purchases and other government programs.
With almost 30,000 students enrolled at the College Park campus, Mitchell defended the need for some equipment the school has received, including high-capacity magazines.
Say, for example, “…the adversary has a 30-round mag” says Mitchell. The adversary in this case being an active shooter, many of whom have used high-capacity magazines in some of the deadliest recent incidents.
“When you look at the threat matrix and the threat picture, it fulfills the need,” Mitchell said. “Understanding that I hope we never need to use it.”
A team of 27 rifle operators on the campus force complete a rigorous qualification course and recertify their skills twice a year so they can effectively respond to an active shooter scenario should officers need to fire into a crowd — without endangering students’ lives. But Mitchell said it’s important that the team operates behind the scenes because rifles could make students uneasy.
Mitchell thought the armored truck UMD police acquired through 1033 could help in a possible rescue situation if students were being held hostage by an active shooter. The department had the vehicle painted blue and the word “rescue” printed on the side to avoid association with the military.
“It’s an emergency rescue ambulance, and we have never used that vehicle at a demonstration. And we have never drawn long guns at a demonstration,” Mitchell said. The truck will be returned, and campus police will rely on county law enforcement if a tactical vehicle is needed in the future.
On-Campus Tactical Operations?
In 2013, Ohio State University received a MRAP vehicle, which the school requested for possible “tactical operations on the Columbus and regional campuses” for “homeland security football missions.” The United States military developed the MRAP in response to increased threats of improvised explosive devices during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which caused a surge in combat casualties among service members.
But some students feel Ohio State uses it at football games to send a signal to rowdy fans.
“It’s really disconcerting, especially around thousands of drunk college kids,” said Ohio State student Sarah Szilagy. “I’ve never actually seen it used for anything besides a visual cue.”
The University of Akron received twenty M68 close-combat rifle reflex sights, an optical device intended for service members to be able to keep both eyes open when sighting a moving target. UMD in College Park has received hundreds of the same sights, 300 high-capacity magazines, two Humvees, and an armored truck ironically nicknamed “the Peacekeeper.”
But the most common piece of tactical equipment acquired by campus police? Semi-automatic rifles: data from the Defense Logistics Agency shows thousands of M16s transferred to colleges and universities since the late 1990s.
University police departments are categorized as special jurisdictions, separate from the accountability structure of city or state law enforcement. Emily Owens, a criminal justice professor at the University of California, Irvine, researches how government policies affect the prevalence of crime and how officers respond to criminal justice policy changes. She says that campus police are held accountable to the president of the school and generally feel less pressure from the people they’re policing. But in this case that’s students, rather than a police chief (maybe an elected official, depending on where) who then answers to a politician who can be voted out of office.
“The chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor, who’s an elected official, and was specifically elected by the people who are being policed,” Owens said. “In colleges and university settings, that doesn’t work. The chief of the university police department needs to keep the president of the university happy.”
According to Owens, campus police can better balance the need to reduce campus crime and make students feel like they’re not under military occupation by studying student perceptions of things like police uniforms and tactical equipment.
“A best practice is going to be trying a policy that you think makes sense. It could be reducing the amount of military gear or changing officers’ uniforms in a way that you think is more consistent with people perceiving officers as a guardian versus a warrior,” Owens said.
No Evidence That It Works
Military-grade equipment has fundamentally changed the physical appearance of police officers and altered law enforcement operations over the years, contributing to negative perceptions of police that have emerged over the last decade.
A study conducted by the Urban Institute last year examined social media posts to determine grassroots opinions about police. The data shows that public sentiment toward police has become more negative since 2014. In the months before Freddie Gray’s killing by Baltimore police, around 20% of tweets about police were negative. Those negative tweets became more frequent as protests continued, according to the study.
In the wake of the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after police shot Michael Brown, Americans were disturbed by scenes of armored vehicles on city streets and heavily armed police officers “kettling” protesters — a tactic used by police to confine a group of people by controlling who can exit and where. Critics of the technique say it allows police officers to detain not only protesters but also bystanders regardless of whether there’s been a crime.
The Obama administration responded to the scenes in Ferguson with significant changes to the 1033 program, prohibiting the transfer of tanks, certain firearms, explosives, and equipment like grenade launchers to civilian law enforcement including school police departments. But in 2017, the Trump administration reversed the changes, calling the equipment “life saving equipment and resources” for officers.
Justice Department officials defended the reversal of the Obama-era changes to the 1033 program by saying that transfers of military surplus equipment improve the quality and efficacy of law enforcement activities according to Dr. Anna Gunderson, a political science professor at Louisiana State University.
“It turns out, we don’t really have any evidence that police militarization through the 1033 program increases or decreases crime, which is super important from a public policy perspective,” said Gunderson, who has extensively studied 1033 and other federal equipment programs.
Gunderson says policymakers continue to cite a 2017 study published in the American Economic Journal that found the use of these weapons had generally positive effects and reduced “street-level crime.” The study called the program “cost-effective” and assigned a dollar amount of $112,000 to the “social costs of robberies, assaults and vehicle thefts” saved by every $5,800 of disbursed equipment.
But Gunderson and her team say the study is seriously flawed and should not be used to make decisions about the program’s efficacy because the DLA’s data itself is bad.
“Only recently has the federal government started releasing the data on what kinds of materials are being given to these local law enforcement agencies, and 1033 data that is publicly available is seriously flawed,” said Gunderson. “It’s not complete, and it’s inconsistent depending on when you access it.”
A study published in 2017 by the University of Cincinnati in response to the 1033 program concluded that militarization of law enforcement does not produce positive outcomes, and data confirms that the use of military-grade equipment actually results in more civilian deaths by police officers.
According to Gunderson, there are other lesser-known programs that also contribute to providing this equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies, and they don’t release data at all.
The 1122 program gives state and local governments access to federal supply sources to purchase equipment “to support counter-drug, homeland security and emergency response activities.” Another program through FEMA provides grants to government agencies to prevent and protect against acts of terrorism. Since fiscal 2002, the FEMA program “has provided more than $9.4 billion to designated high risk urban areas.”
“The problem is that the 1033 gets all of the attention. So much so that people think 1033 is the only source of militarization equipment for local law enforcement agencies,” Gunderson said. “But the problem with these other [programs] is that there’s not good data on where that money is going, or where that equipment is going.”
Campus law enforcement presence has increased in recent years. According to a comprehensive survey by the Justice Department of four-year institutions with 2,500 or more students, about 75% of the campuses used armed officers compared with 68% in the 2004-2005 academic year.
Most public colleges and universities use sworn police officers who have the authority to arrest students, and according to the data a majority of campus police departments have memorandums of understanding with local law enforcement agencies. A team at Duke University is currently conducting a similar survey for 2012-2019.
No Place For ‘Weapons Of War’
As communities across the country call for police reform or even to defund police departments, widespread criticism and calls to end the 1033 program are coming from a variety of voices.
College students are joining the calls to stop the program on their campuses. According to the Lantern, Ohio State has announced that it will create a public safety advisory committee to address students’ concerns about law enforcement, including the school’s participation in the 1033 program.
“Students have had encounters with the Columbus Division of Police that do not uphold Ohio State’s expectations for how our students should be treated – and supported – when peacefully protesting. This includes the pepper spraying of student journalists, who appeared, based on a video recording, to be rightfully and lawfully exercising their right to cover an important event in the city,” reads an email obtained by the Lantern from on-campus leaders. “This type of interaction is both disheartening and unacceptable.”
Nearly 100 advocacy and human rights organizations have signed on to a letter drafted by the progressive membership organization Demand Progress to urge Congress to end the program. The letter is addressed to the House Armed Services Committee currently debating the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
“Weapons of war have absolutely no place in our communities,” the letter reads. “What’s more, evidence has shown that law enforcement agencies that obtain military equipment are more prone to violence.”
“Our police are meant to protect and serve our communities – not turn our streets into battlefields with tanks and heavy artillery. We’ve seen firsthand how the transfer of these weapons has contributed to the militarization of our police departments – leading to the further erosion of police-community relations and the escalation of violence. It’s time to stop putting these weapons on our streets now,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen in a statement.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.