CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For years, law enforcement agencies have been able to get their hands on military-grade equipment from the United States government. But, some are raising concern that authorities shouldn’t be armed with these kinds of weapons.
Since its inception more 20 years ago, the Law Enforcement Support Office, more commonly referred to as the 1033 program, has provided various kinds of excess Department of Defense property to law enforcement agencies across the country.
According to the Defense Logistics Agency, the program mostly provides things like office equipment and furniture, computers and digital cameras. These “general” items make up 92% of property issued last year.
“Generally, the military will let us know what’s available and then if you want it, you purchase it, Goose Creek Police Chief L.J. Roscoe said. “There’s a set dollar amount for the items, if a dollar amount, and then you just put in that you want it and then they decide who gets it.”
But, they aren’t selling just office supplies. The other remaining items include night vision equipment, small arms and tactical vehicles.
“Those are equipment and weapons that are used on war,” Kisha Bird, with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said. “The signal that it is showing to communities that are over-policed, which is black communities in particular, is that we are at war with you.”
CLASP is an organization focused on reducing poverty, promoting economic security and advancing racial equity.
Bird said, especially during the protests, we’ve been seeing police with military gear.
“They are using weapons of war on citizens,” Bird said. “That doesn’t keep communities safe.”
Some of that military gear was put to use during the riots and protests in Charleston over the death of George Floyd including Goose Creek’s Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle – or MRAP.
“As soon as we received the phone call, you know we rallied the troops and we headed that direction,” Roscoe said.
She added the use of force seen on the peninsula during the protests was a call from leaders in Charleston.
“We are coming in from the outside,” Roscoe added. “We were there for support. Whatever they decided to do as far as the use of force we just followed their protocols and their procedures.”
Roscoe said their MRAP, which was gotten through the 1033 Program, is needed for situations like that.
“I think that it has value for the region.”
According to records, Goose Creek’s MRAP cost $658,000. But, the department only paid a $1,000 transfer fee.
But the chief said, no matter the cost, it’s worth it.
“The one time that we need to use it to save somebody’s life, then it is paid off,” Roscoe said. “If you look at the Huger incident back in February of 2019. We received a call about a deputy trapped behind a vehicle that has taken fire. We came in with the MRAP, we were able to get the deputy out of harm’s way and ended up with a peaceful resolution as far as the officers. No other officers were injured in that situation.”
Law enforcement agencies in the Lowcountry have gotten more than 2,700 pieces of equipment through the 1033 program.
Law enforcement officials say the program is beneficial in getting equipment like that.
“You’ve got agencies that have smaller budgets,” Roscoe said. “If you’ve got an officer that’s working in a really rural area, that’s not making very much money, they may not be able to go out and afford paying $500, $600 for a rifle. So, if the agency wants to be able to equip their officers, and the 1033 program is available, then why not take advantage of it.”
Others, however, say that type of equipment, and the money used to get it, could be put to better use.
“Those dollars, those resources can be better used in stabilizing poor communities with a crumbling safety net,” Kara Gotsch, with The Sentencing Project, said. “Social services, access to health care, access to education and good jobs… those kinds of opportunities also help protect public safety.”
In light of these reasons, many organizations are wanting a restructuring of law enforcement agencies from the federal government to the local level.