How Pa. police departments reaped a windfall of military gear, explained | Analysis

Pittsburgh Police officers during a protest on June 1 (Pittsburgh City Paper photo)

Pennsylvania police departments have received a surge of military equipment from the Pentagon over the last five years, moving the state to the middle of the pack of states in the amount and value of equipment received as part of a burgeoning national transfer of battle-ready items to civilian law enforcement.

According to data compiled by the Costs of War Project at Brown University, Pennsylvania law enforcement entities received military equipment transfers as part of the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, valued at $19,337,578 in the years after the Sept, 11, 2001, attacks. That is when the military transfer program accelerated and ballooned.

Those transfers to the state accounted for at least 12,851 items. Local, county and state police entities received equipment transfers.

The Costs of War Project, at Brown’s Watson Institute, is a team of 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians. It began its work in 2011.

Those numbers compare to state law enforcement entities receiving 152 items from the Pentagon valued at $180,690 during some pre-September 11 years, according to the data. Among the years state entities received items before the attacks were in 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997, according to project data.

These post-September 11 numbers reflect transfers up to June of 2020.  Transfers have continued since.

Among the items received by Keystone State police entities after September 11, 2001: 17 mine-resistant vehicles valued at $12,456,000 and nine robot items valued at $1,397,924. Other items transferred included small arms, ammunition, armored trucks, thermal sights and night vision goggles/sniper scopes, various utility/maintenance trucks, ambulances, all-terrain vehicles, and generators.

Pa. Senate sends Wolf police reform bills creating new statewide misconduct database, PTSD screening for cops

They also received more benign items such as coffeemakers, stopwatches, mirrors, power drills, bulletin boards, and books and records.

Among the police departments receiving mine resistant vehicles are Scranton, Abington Township, New Kensington,  New Castle, Darby, Upper Darby Township, Robinson Township, Plymouth Township , Stroud Area Regional Police, Lower Makefield Township, Center Township, Trainer Borough, New Britain Township, Chester Township, Ohio Township, Pottstown, and Spring Township.

Overall, the Brown University study shows that the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program has transferred at least $1.6 billion worth of equipment to law enforcement agencies across the nation and in U.S. territories since September 11, 2001, including at least 1,114 mine-resistant vehicles and more than 1,000 robot items. That compares to at least $27 million in transfers before the attacks.

Total equipment value, by year (Source: , at Brown University’s Watson Institute.).

A primary reason for the huge surge in military equipment transfers was a new mandate and new resources for local law enforcement based on the premise that they would be on the front lines in a domestic war against terrorism.

This had the effect of intensifying the militarization of police through an influx of military weapons and equipment, ramped-up surveillance and intelligence-sharing, and increased hiring of combat veterans as officers, according to the study.

Pennsylvania entries did not begin receiving significant transfers until 2008, when a smattering of equipment flowed to the state. There was a bump up in 2010 but the major surge has occurred over the last four years.

That is similar to what happened with other states, Jessica Katzenstein, the study’s author, said.

“Equipment transfers through the 1033 Program can be seen as a lagging indicator of U.S. military buildup and withdrawal, particularly after the drawdown from Iraq in 2010. As well, big-ticket items like MRVs (Mine Resistant Vehicles) only became available to law enforcement once the military began reducing its inventory, so those transfers only began in 2009 and spiked even later,” she said.

For example, Pennsylvania did receive very small amounts of equipment between September 11, 2001, and 2009, but they were dwarfed by later transfers, Katzenstein said.

“From 9/11 through the end of 2008, various (Pennsylvania) agencies received 52 rifles total, each valued between $138 and $499,” she said. “Rifles are the only items in current Pennsylvania police inventories that were transferred between those dates” in regards to equipment that can be tracked, she said.

What you need to know about the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board 2020 ballot question

The Pentagon does not publicly reveal all the equipment transferred to local and state police entities, in part because of haphazard record keeping. Pentagon officials declined to offer data or guidance, other than noting that the Defense Department does not provide training or other support to local police entities once the equipment is transferred.

This summer, Pentagon officials expressed concern that the public would confuse local law enforcement entities — outfitted in uniforms like active duty troop and using Defense Department cast-off equipment — as actual active forces. Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of Congress he would hope local forces would wear their own uniforms and make clear the distinctions.

Katzenstein said one reason for Pennsylvania’s surge is when the Philadelphia police department DNA Labs got involved in 2009 and were transferred 255 of 5.5 6mm rifles worth $120 each. The later spike in the value of transfers in 2014 was partly due to mine resistant vehicle transfers, of which there were seven transferred that year as well as a couple of utility trucks, she said.

The largest number of transfers by number of items occurred in 2019, with this year a far second. The first big year of transfers was 2010.

However, in terms of value, the highest value of items transferred was 2016, followed closely by 2014 and then last year.

“In terms of equipment transfers by quantity, 2020 could easily catch up with 2019 and not be a far second, depending on the scale of transfers in the second half of the year,” Katzenstein said, regarding both Pennsylvania and nationally. “Equipment transfer trends may change in the next two quarters, it’s unclear where 2020 will ultimately stand.”

Pennsylvania is tied for 22nd (out of 33 spots, and 47 states) in Mine Resistant Vehicles with its 17. All MRVs were transferred post-9/11.

The state ranks 26th (out of 47 states) in Mine Resistant Vehicles measured by its total acquisition value of $12,456,000.

It ranks 28th (out of 52 states and territories) in total equipment transferred since 9/11, as measured by total acquisition value of $19,337,578.

Texas led in both the numbers of items received and their value. Other top states in various order depending on category were Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona, Alabama, and California.

Created in 1997 in the National Defense Authorization Act, the 1033 program allows the Pentagon to shed excess equipment by passing it off to local authorities, who just fund  transportation costs. Language in that NDAA enhanced and made permanent a less expansive sharing program that started in 1990.

“Police militarization comes at a high cost: it is expensive, it works against the stated goals of law enforcement, and, most significantly, it normalizes racialized violence on communities at home and abroad,” Katzenstein said.

During the summer of 2020, as the U.S. witnessed its largest public uprisings since the 1960s, the Department of Homeland Security flew surveillance aircraft over protests in 15 cities, as officers on the ground deployed flash-bang grenades, sound cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators. Since protests began, at least 14 local law enforcement agencies in 10 states have received free mine-resistant vehicles built for the U.S. military.

Domestic costs of this expanding pipeline have been momentous, the report shows.

First, from a purely economic standpoint, maintaining complex military equipment, surveillance systems, and SWAT teams is expensive for taxpayers and local governments, the report said.

Second, overt militaristic spectacles in protest policing—such as during the recent George Floyd protests—compromise police legitimacy and further damage civilian trust in the idea that policing is designed to“protect and serve,” the report said.

Tom Squitieri is a free-lance writer. His work appears occasionally in the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @TomSquitieri.