On the border, military gear inspires mixed reactions
EL PASO — A federal program that transfers surplus military equipment to local communities — and is under review by the Obama administration — is drawing mixed reactions from border officials whose regions have benefited from the initiative.
Run by the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency, the 1033 program allows the transfer of extra or used equipment ranging from aircraft and motor vehicles to tents and binoculars to local, state and other government entities. The receiving entity pays shipping fraction and storage charges, where applicable.
The program, in place since 1990, came under scrutiny last month after law enforcement personnel in Ferguson, Missouri, responded with armored vehicles to protesters who flooded the streets after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.
Last week, a coalition of advocacy groups, including Texas Appleseed, expressed alarm over the amount of equipment being sent to Texas school districts. The state has received about 491,000 items since 2006, according to federal data obtained by The New York Times and broken down by U.S. News and World Report.
Opponents argue that the program leads to militarization of communities and that a review is not enough.
“Until we’re satisfied that this equipment is being used responsibly, we should suspend the program indefinitely,” U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said. O’Rourke, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he voted for a measure over the summer that would have suspended additional transfers of military equipment to police forces.
“The more we militarize police, the greater the likelihood that they will respond to civil issues in a military fashion,” he said.
Some border law enforcement officials praised the program.
In Webb County, where deputies patrol the border across the Rio Grande from Tamaulipas, Mexico, the sheriff’s office has used the program to obtain equipment like a helicopter and a military Humvee.
“We think it’s a great program,” a sheriff’s office spokeswoman, Brenda Medina, said. “You don’t put a burden on the taxpayers.”
Farther south, Starr County has received dozens of weapons, some worth hundreds of dollars, and four utility trucks worth about $40,000 each. The county has also received Humvees that it uses for flood relief, said Ruben Villarreal, the mayor of the county seat, Rio Grande City.
Eddie Guerra, the interim Hidalgo County sheriff, said he supported the program but that some of the equipment was outdated and not ideal. To purchase newer weapons, he said, the sheriff's department usually taps into its forfeiture funds. He said he didn't think the 1033 program leads to "militarization" if it is used for legitimate purposes.
Guerra added that an armored vehicle obtained through the program by the city of Mission's police department recently played an integral role in a standoff in nearby La Joya. Trapped officers were able to take cover with the vehicle when a suspect opened fire.
"That's what saved the day," Guerra said. The suspect eventually fled and was fatally wounded.
Villarreal said that some items were a “bit much” but that every community had different needs.
“It is very useful for communities that need extra help,” he said. “I don’t see it as a negative.”
Mimi Schirmacher, a public affairs officer with the federal agency that oversees the program, said the review was underway.
“[Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel] has directed his staff to cooperate fully with the review to ensure that the transfer of Department of Defense materials for law enforcement strikes the proper balance of accountability and purpose,” Schirmacher said in an email.
Schirmacher added that 95 percent of the items transferred were not weapons, and that fewer than 1 percent were tactical vehicles. More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies participate, all of which have to specify through their state governments how the equipment will be used.
U.S. News and World Report reported that El Paso had received nearly half of the equipment sent to Texas, though the sheriff’s and police departments have not received the bulk of it. Most has gone to the Department of Homeland Security, which has received equipment ranging from $20 kneepads to $80,000 buses.
Some elected officials have advocated more transparency about the equipment transferred and where it goes.
“They should track it as if they spent hard-earned tax dollars,” Villarreal said.