Military gear for Texas agencies blurs line between watchman, warfighter

Photo by Highway Patrol Images

Editor's note: Clarification appended.

Under the Department of Defense’s little-known 1033 Program, surplus or obsolete military gear is transferred to various state or local law enforcement agencies nationwide to forestall the need for state or local spending. While responsible stewardship of taxpayer resources is a worthwhile endeavor — would that every federal department were more diligent in this respect — as is the case with many federal programs, there is an element of “mission creep” facilitated by it, and Texas is no exception.

According to a new report published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, various disbursements made to agencies across the state are of dubious import. Some, on their face, seem comical. An Internal Revenue Service office in El Paso (federal agencies with state-based offices can procure gear as well) received a pair of night-vision optics — an enterprising employee must enjoy tax collection even in the dark. The Bell County Sheriff's Department received a guitar valued at over a thousand dollars, perhaps affording the occasional tongue-in-cheek rendition of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Jailhouse Blues.”

Other acquisitions, however, raise eyebrows. One school district with 742 enrolled students received marksman-grade armaments and laser range-finding gear. Ector County’s Office of Environmental Enforcement procured four 5.56-millimeter rifles for every sworn officer. Both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Southern University received an MRAP, an armored vehicle designed to withstand IED detonations. These disbursements were in addition to the well-provisioned municipality and county agencies with primary jurisdiction over those areas.

In total, over $1.8 billion worth of surplus military gear has been doled out nationally, with $124.9 million worth sent to Texas across 476,130 individual items — second highest in the country, behind Florida. Municipal police agencies have been the largest beneficiaries, followed by county sheriff’s departments. Several K-12 and higher-education police departments, and other agencies with nontraditional law enforcement missions, have also taken advantage of the program.

As the most controversial aspect of the 1033 program is the perception among the public that it contributes to the larger militarization of civilian law enforcement, it’s instructive then to track just how many weapons and combat vehicles have been sent to Texas so far, and who receives them.

According to the TPPF report, 75 MRAPs — among other armored vehicles — have been disbursed to various Texas agencies, at a median cost of $733,000. As of March 2016, 2,552 5.56mm rifles and 845 7.62mm rifles have been sent across the state.

Larger, traditional law enforcement agencies possess the training and experience to utilize these platforms and can thereby more adequately justify their use. Concern arises, however, where smaller, more nontraditional agencies, such as school districts or institutions of higher education, receive weaponry and armored vehicles that don’t necessarily comport with their core competencies.

For example, school districts in Texas received over $700,000 in 1033 items; among them were 74 5.56mm rifles, 17 7.62mm rifles and an assortment of night-vision and range-finding devices. Higher-education police agencies were the largest recipients, percentage-wise, of combat vehicles — comprising nearly 75 percent of their total disbursements by value. It’s an additional burden on an already inefficient public education system to ensure that officers in these agencies are adequately trained on these weapons platforms, particularly when other departments already provide complimentary coverage.

Despite these concerns, wholesale elimination of the program in Texas would be too hasty. In addition to its beneficial cost-saving aspect, there are agencies that can offer legitimate justifications for the equipment they receive. However, certain reforms would be prudent.

First, Texas and other states should establish their own transparency standards. Navigating the current system maintained by the federal government is cumbersome, so requiring state and local agencies to remit 1033 information not only to the state program coordinator, but to a more accessible central authority — such the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement — would simplify oversight. Second, limit disbursements to non-traditional agencies. While certain equipment may serve a valuable purpose, most of it isn’t needed to fulfill basic mission competencies. And third, the governor, attorney general, or TCOLE should be empowered to veto disbursements. Certain items have maintenance costs that are substantial. Taxpayers ought to be protected from funding hardware maintenance that is not within the general mission parameters of these agencies.

Anyone should agree that preserving public safety is a core function of government, but government must also be accountable to constituents. The 1033 program is no different. Taking up these reforms would strike an appropriate balance between maintaining law and order, and ensuring that surplus military gear goes to the right place, for the right reasons.

Clarification: This column was amended to explicitly state that 1033 information is currently remitted to a state coordinator.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Michael Haugen

Staff writer, Texas Public Policy Foundation