Amid widespread criticism of the deployment of military-grade weapons and vehicles by police officers in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama recently ordered a review of federal efforts supplying equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.
So, we decided to take a look at what the president might find.
NPR obtained data from the Pentagon on every military item sent to local, state and federal agencies through the Pentagon's Law Enforcement Support Office — known as the 1033 program — from 2006 through April 23, 2014. The Department of Defense does not publicly report which agencies receive each piece of equipment, but they have identified the counties that the items were shipped to, a description of each, and the amount the Pentagon initially paid for them.
We took the raw data, analyzed it and have organized it to make it more accessible. We are making that data set available to the public today.
Here's what we found:
1. Gear: MRAPs, Bayonets And Grenade Launchers
The 1033 program is the key source of the most visible, big-ticket, military item being sent to local law enforcement: mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs. Designed to withstand bullets, grenades and roadside bombs on the front lines of war, more than 600 of them have been sent to local law enforcement agencies in almost every state in the U.S., mostly within the past year. Los Angeles County, for example, has nine of these vehicles, six of which were obtained just this past March.
But the program is a conduit for much more than just MRAPs. Since 2006, through the 1033 program, the Pentagon has also distributed:
- 79,288 assault rifles
- 205 grenade launchers
- 11,959 bayonets
- 3,972 combat knives
- $124 million worth of night-vision equipment, including night-vision sniper scopes
- 479 bomb detonator robots
- 50 airplanes, including 27 cargo transport airplanes
- 422 helicopters
- More than $3.6 million worth of camouflage gear and other "deception equipment"
2. More Than Just Combat Gear
It turns out that weapons are a relatively small part of the 1033 program.
Each item in the database has a National Stock Number (NSN), which NPR used to determine the general category of each item and gain a broader understanding of what types of equipment have been made available through the 1033 program. The list includes building materials, musical instruments and even toiletries. (We've added those categories to the data we're publishing today.)
Actual weaponry, not including vehicles of any kind, account for just over 3 percent of the total value of all goods sent out by the Pentagon between 2006 and April.
3. What The Data Don't Tell Us: Why?
Congress authorized the 1033 program in 1989 to equip local, state and federal agencies in the war on drugs. In 1996, Congress widened the program's scope to include counterterrorism. But the data do not confirm whether either of those public safety goals are, in fact, driving decisions about the distribution of equipment. Areas with large populations or high crime rates aren't necessarily receiving more or less than their share of the items. Nor is a greater amount of equipment being sent to areas along the U.S. borders or coasts, places more likely to be drug trafficking corridors or terrorist targets.
Looking exclusively at who is getting what, the data don't clearly point to why certain agencies are receiving more surplus items than others.
Here's how it works: Equipment is posted to LESO's (the 1033 program office) website, and then local agencies can request it. Only state coordinators to the Defense Logistics Agency are tasked with approving or denying those requests.
We did see trends in the data over time that show patterns of military overstocking and surplus.
What The Data Don't Tell Us: The Local Story
Our analysis of the data only took us so far. Many questions remain.
The data are merely a starting point for further exploration into why certain overstocked and surplus items are — and aren't — being requested. Questions remain about how and why they are being used, and the benefit, if any, to local law enforcement.
We've provided NPR member stations with the tools to begin asking these and other questions. With reporting at the national and local levels, we will continue to follow this story.
Editor's note at 2:30 p.m. ET, Sept. 3: A chart that explored the demographics of counties that have received equipment has been removed from this page. It wasn't intended to be part of this package and was inadvertently published before being finished. The data may be part of a future report.