Originally published on September 22, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Due to public outcry, school districts nationwide are debating whether to keep their Pentagon-issued assault rifles, grenade launchers, and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Donated free of charge as part of the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, surplus military equipment has been dispensed throughout law enforcement agencies and school districts for decades. Recent criticisms of excessive police militarization in Ferguson, Missouri, last month has left many school officials questioning the need for military-grade weapons on campus.
According to the Defense Logistics Agency, over $5 billion in military equipment has been handed out to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies and at least 26 school districts since 2007. California alone has received 8,533 surplus guns, 7,094 pieces of night-vision equipment, 2,370 bayonets and knives, 49 armored vehicles, 59 airplanes and helicopters, and 18 grenade launchers since 2006.
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed last month revealed that 61 M16 rifles, 3 grenade launchers, and an MRAP have been transferred to the Los Angeles School Police Department. According to California’s Office of Emergency Services, the Baldwin Park School Police Department received three M16 rifles that they plan to return, while Kern High School District Police received 30 magazines for M4 assault rifle ammunition. Although the Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to return the grenade launchers, they refuse to relinquish the assault rifles and mine-resistant vehicle.
After receiving an MRAP valued at over $700,000, the San Diego Unified School District intended to soften the vehicle’s image by removing the weapon mounts and gun turrets, painting it white with a Red Cross symbol, and filling the interior with medical supplies and teddy bears. Although law enforcement officials were eager to acquire the armored vehicle, the school district has announced they will be returning the MRAP.
“Some members of our community are not comfortable with the district having this vehicle,” Superintendent Cindy Marten said. “If any part of our community is not comfortable with it, we cannot be comfortable with it.”
“Public sentiment regarding the use of excess military equipment by law enforcement agencies since the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, has pointed to the need to be more sensitive to perception,” admitted Police Chief Rueben Littlejohn. “The value that this defensive tool would bring cannot exceed the value of retaining the public’s trust, confidence, and perceptions of how we will protect our students.”
Federal records show schools in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Utah have received surplus military-grade weapons and vehicles.
In Florida, Pinellas County School K-12 obtained 22 M16, two armored trucks, and two MRAPs. Bay County Schools received seven M16s and a .45 caliber pistol, while Palm Beach County schools received two .45 caliber pistols. Florida International University acquired 49 M16 rifles and an MRAP. The University of Central Florida received 11 M16s and a grenade launcher, while the University of South Florida in Tampa accepted a donation of twenty M16 rifles.
Last year, the Ohio State University Police Division obtained an MRAP equipped with armored siding, bulletproof glass, and a turret. OSU decided to soften the vehicle’s image by painting it black and removing the turret. Although the Defense Department gave them a free MRAP, the modifications came out of the University Police budget.
School officials in Nevada, Texas, and Utah declared they have no intention of returning the M16s donated by the Pentagon.
Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990 sanctioned the Secretary of Defense to give surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies. After a few years, Section 1208 was replaced by the Defense Department’s 1033 Program. Since that time, 184 state and local police departments have been suspended from the program for missing weapons, tactical equipment, and vehicles.
In Mississippi, the Meridian Police Department was suspended after losing four M14 rifles. The Columbus Police Department lost three M14 rifles, while the Tupelo Police Department lost a 12-gauge shotgun and two helmets.
In Arkansas, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department lost an M14 rifle and a night vision scope. The Woodruff Police Department lost three 12-gauge shotguns, while the Palestine Police Department lost a Humvee.
In Georgia, two .45 caliber pistols went missing at Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. Hall County Sheriff’s Office misplaced an M14 rifle, and the Georgia Department of Corrections sold a Humvee without authorization. After failing to track down two .45 caliber pistols, the Sparta Police Department was eventually terminated from the program.