The sheriff’s department in Chelan County, east of Seattle, figured it could use an armored vehicle to transport its SWAT team’s response to thorny situations, thereby erasing the fear of taking fire as they sped into active shooter or barricade incidents.
When they asked the feds for a military vehicle, the Pentagon insisted they take three of them — armored, tracked vehicles designed to carry a 107 millimeter mortar, but which had the weapons removed to make it more suitable for police use.
That was more than 14 years ago.
The sheriff’s office now wants to return the assault vehicles, which technically are still owned by the Pentagon. But shipping 10-ton trucks has proven to be a logistics nightmare, and the county may end up having to absorb the cost.
“We don’t care; we just want to get rid of them,” said Undersheriff John Wisemore. “We realized they weren’t as safe for what we were going to be using them for.”
He isn’t alone.
Tucson Police have garaged two 10-ton carriers that they got from the Pentagon in 1996. The pair of tracked assault vehicles were built to carry antitank defense missile systems but had the armaments removed.
He said the department had upgraded to a modern SWAT vehicle “that looks less like a tank. It looks like a bank truck,” he said.
Two decades after Congress authorized the Department of Defense to supply military equipment to local, state and federal agencies for “law enforcement activities,” police departments find themselves saddled with an array of outdated military hardware and accused of becoming militarized.
Now the Section 1033 transfer program is under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of this month’s standoffs between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
President Obama has ordered a White House review of the program, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced legislation to scale it back, ending transfer of what he called “aggressive military equipment” and insisting that everything that has been sent out be accounted for.
That accountability is lacking, at least for the public.
The Defense Department last week released a massive set of data detailing every transfer the Pentagon made to law enforcement agencies dating back to 1991. But the data only sparked new questions and confusion, because it didn’t list the agencies that were receiving the most lethal or intimidating military equipment.
A Washington Times investigation found a number of departments complaining about the heavy armored vehicles that have been transferred, finding them to be overkill for the jobs local law enforcement needs to do. But despite those hiccups, departments say they’re thrilled with the program as a whole, particularly because of the weapons that the officers and deputies say put them on even footing with the residents they are trying to protect.