Military equipment flows to Mid-South law enforcement agencies

Military equipment flows to Mid-South law enforcement agencies

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - From the battlefields overseas to the streets here at home.

Since the 1990s, a U.S. Department of Defense program known as the 1033 Program has provided local police departments with surplus military equipment, though it wasn’t until riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 that many Americans became aware of it.

Nine months after Ferguson, President Barack Obama announced a ban on the transfer of certain types of military equipment to local police, including armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and some high-powered rifles.

“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s a part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said in 2015.

But in 2017, President Donald Trump reversed that ban.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement at a police conference in Nashville.

“These restrictions that had been opposed went too far,” said Sessions. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety. We will do our best to get you what you need.”

Military equipment in the hands of police became a big issue again this year amid civil unrest following the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.

Through a public records request, WMC Action News 5 obtained an inventory list of military equipment for every law enforcement agency in Tennessee that participates in the 1033 program.

Records show more than $120 million dollars' worth of military surplus equipment is in possession of Tennessee law enforcement agencies.

This not only includes battlefield equipment but office supplies like chairs, ice machines, bookcases, and filing cabinets.

But it’s the military weapons many are concerned about.

Records show that the Memphis Police Department received two mine-resistant vehicles, known as MRAPs.

The first vehicle, shipped to MPD in 2016, was valued at $658,000.

The second vehicle, shipped to MPD in 2019, was valued at $575,000.

In 2017, MPD gave Action News 5 a close-up look as officers used one of the vehicles to train for a potential hostage crisis.

In reality, Police Director Mike Rallings says they’re mostly used for other purposes.

“You know what our MRAP is used mostly for? Kids play in it. We did an MRAP pool and we raised money for St. Jude,” said Rallings.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office also showed WMC their MRAP vehicle in 2017. SCSO says they no longer have this MRAP in their inventory.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and some commissioners now want to limit the kinds of weapons the department can receive from the military in the future.

“Unfortunately, the President Obama regulation was later repealed, so it is incumbent on us at the local and state level to say something,” said Harris.

Smaller agencies have also received military equipment. In fact, the inventory list of equipment sent to smaller law enforcement agencies in western Tennessee significantly longer than what has been sent to MPD and SCSO.

Records show dozens of military firearms (mostly rifles) were sent to police departments in Covington, Bartlett, Dyersburg (pistols), Memphis Airport Police, and to sheriff’s offices in Tipton and Dyer counties.

Some agencies like Bartlett Police, and the Tipton, Fayette, and Dyer County sheriff’s offices have also received mine-resistant vehicles like the ones in Memphis, records show.

Mine resistant vehicles in Mid-South law enforcement agencies
Mine resistant vehicles in Mid-South law enforcement agencies (Source: WMC Action News 5)

Dyer County Sheriff Jeff Box showed WMC some of the surplus equipment his department received through the years, including an armored vehicle he says helps with natural disaster rescues like flooding.

“We’re prone to flooding here in this area,” Box said.

Agencies don’t pay for the equipment itself. They just pay for shipping and any necessary maintenance.

Box says this saves local taxpayers money.

As for efforts to limit what police can receive, he says it’s all politics.

“I think we should keep politics or political opinions out of law enforcement and out of emergency services,” Box said. “It’s no place for it.”

According to the Department of Defense, around 8,200 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies participate in the 1033 program.

But it’s not the only way law enforcement agencies can get surplus military equipment.

Several other federal programs provide access to it and some of the equipment is available in the commercial market.

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