Cell phone videos from protests around the country in recent weeks have recorded scenes that seem like they’re straight out of a warzone: Police officers decked out in body armor and gas masks, facing down protesters across tear gas-filled streets.
One reason why: Many police departments are equipped with gear that comes directly from the US military.
The Defense Department has sent at least $760 million worth of surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the country since August 2017, when President Trump lifted restrictions imposed on those transfers by his predecessor Barack Obama, a CNN analysis of federal data found.
That total, delivered through what’s known as the 1033 Program, included more than $5.3 million worth of potentially protest-related military equipment – gear like riot shields, gas masks and tasers, as well as other equipment that law enforcement agencies told the DOD they were requesting to use during riots, protests, or other crowd control situations. (Some of the equipment may have been decommissioned or returned to the feds since the agencies received it.)
Now, as debates over how to reform or defund police departments are growing around the country, the pipeline from the military to cops on the streets is facing a wave of renewed criticism, with members of Congress from both parties pushing to change it or end the program altogether.
While Trump provoked a bipartisan backlash with his threat to deploy US troops to major cities, some of the police departments responding to protests and riots have already been equipped with the same gear soldiers might use.
Terron Sims II, an Army veteran in Arlington, Virginia who’s attended several recent protests, said some of the videos he’s seen of officers rolling through their cities in mine-resistant vehicles remind him of the equipment he used while serving in Iraq.
“It’d be one thing if you’re fighting al Qaeda in the streets, but we’re not,” said Sims. “They’re facing a peaceful crowd of folks exercising their constitutional rights. It’s ridiculous.”
Obama moved to restrict the program in 2015 after the first major Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, putting in place new limits on some equipment and banning other gear such as tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, and grenade launchers. But Trump undid those restrictions in August 2017.
Police leaders have defended the program, arguing that military-style equipment – which departments receive for free – can save the lives of officers facing dangers like mass shootings, or help protect them if protests turn violent.
The DOD did not respond to a request for comment about the program.
David Chasteen, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and later worked as a civilian executive in the San Francisco Police Department, said he was dismayed by police officers “play-acting what they think it’s like to be in the military.”
“This stuff is designed for us to go and kill people in order to accomplish our objectives,” Chasteen said. “The idea that those tools should then be put to use against people in the U.S. is wildly offensive and un-American. That’s not how we do things here.”
Ironically, Chasteen said, over years of counterinsurgency missions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US military has moved away from using massive shows of force when soldiers try to reach out to civilians.
“We stopped driving tanks into neighborhoods, we started taking off the body armor, we said ‘don’t point your weapons at people,’” Chasteen said. “You have to demonstrate to people you are trustworthy and you’re going to be there for them, not that you consider them to be the enemy.”
“If we can do that in Iraq and Afghanistan, then sure as s*** cops can do that in Minnesota,” he said.
Why police request military supplies
Some of the equipment that’s been sent around the country through the program was specifically requested by police to deal with protests.
Over the two and a half decades the program has been in place, more than 250 agencies have received 12-gauge riot guns – used to fire tear gas canisters or other projectiles – through the program, including the Baltimore Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, and Hartford Police Department.
The Houston Police Department received 38 riot training suits worth a total of more than $64,000 and 91 riot control shields worth $12,000. Riot shields and face shields also went to agencies big and small, including the Milwaukee Police Department and university police departments at Clemson University and Alabama State University.
Several law enforcement agencies in California, Oregon and Colorado have received long-range acoustic devices, or LRAD’s, which blast a painful wall of sound at protesters and have been used by some police departments against recent protests.
“This unit would be used by our tactical team in the event that large crowds need to be addressed,” the sheriff’s office in rural Douglas County, Oregon wrote in its application to the Defense Department for a $34,500 LRAD. “We currently have no capability of this type.” The sheriff’s office said it has not yet used the device, which it received in November.
Among the agencies that cracked down on protests in Minneapolis, the Minnesota state Department of Public Safety received dozens of rifles from the program, as well as a dozen night vision viewers and “sniperscopes” worth thousands of dollars each.
In 2019, state regulators suspended the sheriff’s office in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, from receiving any equipment through the program for 30 days due to “failure to report missing controlled property,” according to documents obtained by CNN through a public records request. The county had lost track of two of about 100 of the gun sights it had received from the feds. Another small police department in the state was also given a temporary suspension after it lost several pieces of equipment, including a .45 caliber handgun, which was in possession of a former officer who had been dismissed from the force.
How police militarization can impact communities
One of the most visible pieces of military equipment on show during some recent protests have been huge mine-resistant vehicles, known as MRAP’s. In Columbia, South Carolina, a local TV station filmed the local police department’s MRAP rolling slowly down a street a block away from the State Capitol, flanked by dozens of officers in riot gear and shields.
The Columbia police department received the $658,000 vehicle through the program in 2013, and has also been sent dozens of rifles, several trucks an unmanned ground vehicles, and other gear over the years.
Jennifer Timmons, a spokesperson for the department, said the MRAP was used “to protect citizens and officers during hostile protests” because rocks and bottles were being thrown at police, although she said no injuries were reported at the protests. The vehicle is typically used during incidents with armed, barricaded suspects, and other former military vehicles have helped the department save lives during devastating flooding, she said.
Other police departments that receive the military equipment make similar arguments, calling the program an important resource to keep officers safe. And they point out that without the program, taxpayer dollars would be going to purchase similar gear.
But experts say that images of police deploying in ballistic armor or bringing out their tank-like vehicles could deal lasting damage to officers’ relationships with their communities.
“When police use this militarized equipment, many black and brown people see them acting as occupying forces,” said Jennifer Cobbina, a professor at Michigan State University who wrote a book about Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. “They shouldn’t be seen as warriors, they should be working with the community to promote public safety.”
From swords to duffel bags to MRAPs
The military supply program was first approved in its modern form in 1996, designed to support local cops at the height of the war on drugs with gear the troops no longer needed.
Since then, there’s been more than $5 billion in free equipment doled out to police departments through the program. If the equipment isn’t transferred to other agencies, the Defense Department will donate it, sell it, or destroy it.
A little more than a third of the equipment shipped since August 2017, based on its total cost, is tactical equipment, such as mine-resistant vehicles or night-vision goggles, while the rest is more everyday items like first aid kits, computers or duffel bags, according to CNN’s analysis.
And some of the items are simply bizarre, like the “sword and scabbard” sent to two small police departments in suburbs near New York City and Atlanta – or the Los Angeles School Police Department’s request for three grenade launchers (which it later returned) and 61 rifles (which it kept).
Most of the gear went to local police and sheriff’s departments in small towns and rural counties around the country.
The program got a wave of attention after the 2014 protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, where gas mask and body armor-clad officers aggressively cracked down on mostly black protesters. Cell phone videos of armored police vehicles rolling through suburban streets sparked outrage over the militarization.
As controversy over the program grew, Obama issued an executive order in May 2015 banning a long list of equipment from being sent to police departments, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and camouflage uniforms.
“Militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said as he signed the order. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”
But the change lasted barely two years. Seven months after Trump took office in 2017, he signed his own executive order rolling back the Obama-era restrictions.
“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a police union conference at the time. The order will “ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal,” he said.
Under the Trump administration, the Defense Department has sent out some of the same gear that Obama had banned, such as bayonets designed to be attached to rifles. Twenty-seven law enforcement agencies received bayonet knives or bayonets and scabbards through the program since August 2017, the data shows.
Local and national criticism grows
Now, in the wake of the Floyd protests, the program’s future is again in jeopardy. Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to reform the program or cancel it altogether, and several Republicans have signed on.
“Weapons of war don’t belong in our local police departments and should never be used against the American people,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. A new bill he introduced this month would ban the transfer of offensive military equipment, but still allow police to receive defensive equipment.
There’s also growing opposition to militarized equipment from local communities. In Culver City, California, local activists and elected officials organized to push the city’s police department to cancel its plan to purchase a military-style BearCat armored personnel carrier in recent weeks. The department cut the vehicle as part of broader coronavirus-related budget cuts.
“The vehicles themselves can more or less inflame whatever situation is going on,” said Daniel Lee, a city council member and Air Force veteran who successfully advocated for the item to be cut from the Los Angeles suburb’s budget. “It really puts people on a wartime footing, and it sends the wrong message.”
Many police leaders defend the program. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, the president of the national Major Cities Chiefs Association, said that it made sense for police in “one of the most violent nations in the civilized free world” to use military-style equipment.
Officers equipped with high-powered rifles were able to take down a mass shooter in Dayton, Ohio, last year, saving many lives, and a mine-resistant vehicle from the 1033 program allowed at least one rural Texas police department to help residents escape flooding, Acevedo argued.
Supplies from the program have also been used to help local governments fight the coronavirus pandemic, from a former military Humvee being used as an ambulance to transport patients in rural Indiana to tents used for decontamination in New Jersey, according to the DOD.
“It’s not about the equipment, it’s about the proper policy for its use,” Acevedo said. “Everybody needs to take a deep breath and stop using their emotion and stop painting these issues with broad brushes.”
How we reported this story
For this story, CNN examined 1033 Program data from the Defense Department’s Defense Logistics Agency.
For several of the findings in this story, CNN relied on the DLA’s transferred property data. That data, which is published quarterly and only includes property currently held by participating agencies, includes information on more than 140,000 equipment transfers to local police agencies and includes items’ names, classification codes (known as National Stock Numbers, or “NSN”s), each shipment’s date, and the quantity and acquisition value of each item shipped.
To investigate the transfer of tactical equipment, reporters used the NSNs to focus on items categorized as weaponry; ammunition and explosives; missiles; and aircraft, seacraft and related accessories. Reporters also read through item descriptions for thousands of additional items to identify at least 600 more tactical or combat-related items, including training equipment.
For CNN’s reporting on equipment received by individual agencies, reporters also analyzed the DLA’s shipments and cancellations data, which goes back to July 2017 and includes statements submitted by agencies to justify their requests for equipment. Reporters also analyzed this data for their findings on protest-related equipment, which CNN identified by searching for entries where the item name or request justification included the terms “riot,” “protest,” “crowd control,” “civil disturbance,” “firing device,” “pepper spray,” “faceshield,” “ballistic shields,” “personal protective shields,” “ballistic shield,” “gas mask” and “long range acoustic.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that the armored vehicle purchase in Culver City was eliminated due to coronavirus-related budget cuts.
Janie Boschma and Sonam Vashi contributed to this report.