COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The death of George Floyd is sparking calls from Black Lives Matter advocates to defund and demilitarize the police.
As the voices grow louder, there’s renewed criticism for a program that redistributes excess military equipment and weapons from the U.S. Military to local law enforcement agencies across the nation. It’s called the Law Enforcement Support Office 1033 program and it’s run by the Defense Logistics Agency, also known as the DLA.
In a little under 30 years since its inception, $7 billion worth of those materials has made their way into local agencies across the country.
Armored vehicles, 5.56 mm assault rifles, and helicopters are just a few things that the 1033 program has given law enforcement agencies across the state. Many of the materials were seen on full display in Columbia and across the state as protests escalated. Some protesters and legislators are saying it’s time for things like the helicopters and armored vehicles to go back to the federal government.
As protests, mainly peaceful, escalated in Columbia on the weekend of May 30, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says his department responded in a way that would keep Columbia and its citizens safe but necessary.
“When has there been a war on the streets for you to pull up in a tank, even with the peaceful protesting?” Demetris Hill, a protester, said.
Richland County has received three utility trucks, three unmanned vehicles, a mine-resistant vehicle, two helicopters, and over 100 assault rifles since the 1033 program began.
A spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency says none of the vehicles given to law enforcement are tanks because they aren’t equipped with weapons.
Sheriff Lott said the armored vehicles were used to protect law enforcement when the protests turned violent.
“I think people associate with some girl sitting in the road peacefully protesting. That’s not what it’s designed for. What it’s designed for is when we have police cars are being burned, buildings broken into, and our officers need to be protected,” Sheriff Lott said.
However, many protesters feel it escalated tensions.
“People are peaceful but the second you start to amplify and bulk up your side, people are going to feel intimidated, and that’s the number one use of things like tanks. It’s just for intimidation,” Jazmyne McCrae, a protester, said.
The response is also drawing criticism from legislators.
Representative JA Moore, who serves Berkeley and Charleston Counties, said he is drafting a bill that would remove South Carolina’s involvement in the 1033 program and everything law enforcement has received would need to go back.
“How do we take this military-grade weaponry off our streets? We just don’t need them. There is a need to protect the people here and the law enforcement, but it doesn’t need to be done this way,” Rep. Moore said.
Many law enforcement agencies said this would be detrimental to their operation.
“It would drastically reduce our capabilities,” Florence County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Anthony Fox said.
“Shame on those who are trying to take the tools away from law enforcement. It’s a tough job being a cop, there are people out here who want to kill us,” Sheriff Lott said.
The 1033 program is designed to give law enforcement excess military equipment to help with counter-drug and terrorism activities. Since the program started, law enforcement agencies in South Carolina have received more than $63 million worth of equipment. Over 5,000 items costing nearly $3 million total were distributed to law enforcement agencies across the state this year.
A spokesperson for DLA said most of the materials distributed aren’t weapons.
“We are talking about furniture and office supplies, gym equipment, tools, first aid kit, things of that nature, the vast majority of what we provide them falls into that category,” DLA spokesperson Michelle McCaskill said.
The program prohibits transferring any tanks or weapons vehicles, as well as military uniforms, body armor, or tear gas.
“The shields, the body armor, we go out and buy that. We put that in our budget for our field force teams,” Sheriff Lott said.
Some departments use the program more than others. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Department received a little over $45,000 worth of equipment. The sheriff’s departments in Greenville County and Lexington County and the police department in Horry County all have received between $1 million and $1.5 million each in equipment. RCSD has received over $3.5 million in equipment. Lott said some of the equipment is rarely used but necessary.
“I would rather have it when I need it then not have it when I do need it,” Sheriff Lott said.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said they haven’t used the program since 2014, but that’s because they’ve been getting grants from other places as a port city.
“We have been able to get a number of homeland security post 9/11,” Sheriff Cannon said.
Other smaller agencies, like the Florence County Sheriff Office, received more than Richland County with over $3.7 million. However, Sheriff Lott said that shouldn’t be surprising.
“People just need to remember October 3, 2018, in Florence County where seven police officers were shot and two were killed, that was an armored vehicle that was the only thing that was able to stop that incident from happening,” Sheriff Lott said.
Sheriff Lott said it’s a constant reminder of why the 1033 program is not just essential, it’s critical.
“We used our MRAP in October of 2018. That was primarily used as a rescue vehicle. It was used to help extract the police officers and deputies that were injured,” Lt. Fox, the deputy that drives the armored vehicles for the Florence County Sheriff’s Office, said.
He said the vehicles and helicopters are primarily used to serve high-risk warrants and respond to things like floods.
“It increases our response capabilities to a wide variety of incidents and we want to be in a position where we are best capable to respond and provide services to our citizens, that’s our goal is to keep people safe,” Lt. Fox said.
McCaskill said each state has a 1033 Program Coordinator that oversees the local law enforcement agencies’ use of the weapons.
“They took a very detailed look at our inventory to make sure that we had 100 percent accountability for all of these big-ticket items,” Lt. Fox said.
Local agencies can be suspended or removed if the agency violates the memorandum of agreement with the State Coordinator. Three agencies, the Columbia Police Department, the Sumter Police Department, and the Clio Police Department were all suspended in the last two years for stolen weapons.
A spokesperson for the Columbia Police Department said they were suspended in March of 2019 because a weapon was stolen from an officer’s patrol vehicle. The suspension ended in April and CPD has requested reactivation.
“The weapon was stolen from an officer’s patrol vehicle during a gun crime investigation at Lakeshore Village Apartments. This is the same area where a murder occurred in 2019 as well as additional violent shootings. The officer’s vehicle was regrettably unsecured in a parking lot during the course of an investigation. Since the incident, we have outfitted multiple patrol cars with additional security measures for proper storage of weapons,” A spokesperson for the Columbia Police Department said.
The Sumter Police Department was reinstated this month.
“It was unfortunate that a firearm obtained through the program was stolen. However, we have implemented additional measures and strengthened our policies our procedures to better ensure that firearms are properly stored and secured by officers whether on duty or off,” Sumter Police Department Chief Russell Roark said.
A suspension is something RCSD has also faced in the past. RCSD also faced suspension in 2015 after Sheriff Lott traded two C-23 Sherpas from the program with an aircraft from a private company. RCSD was reinstated to the program in March of 2017.
“We can’t do anything with this equipment. We couldn’t sell this. We couldn’t give it away. We have an inventory every year,” Sheriff Lott said.
Rep. Moore said he wants greater accountability for law enforcement using this type of equipment. He would like local and state government to play a larger role in providing equipment for law enforcement that isn’t formerly used in the military and overseeing its use.
“It’s very important that law enforcement officers have all abilities and capabilities to protect and service people here in the state and across the country, but we don’t need military-grade weaponry to do that,” Rep. Moore said.
However, Sheriff Lott said without the 1033 program law enforcement, agencies can’t afford the extras.
“If we can’t get it through the 1033 plan, where are we are saving taxpayers money/ Fine, I’ll get rid of all of them, but you’ve got to replace them. They are needed,” Sheriff Lott said.
Representative Moore said the bill he is drafting would including appropriations for law enforcement to be able to buy necessary equipment.