The increased militarization of local police departments in the United States became public controversy when the nation and the world saw images of tanks and heavy weaponry brought in to put down protests in Ferguson, Missouri last August.
Many people believed there was no need to use wartime equipment against demonstrators who protested the police murder of young Michael Brown with their hands in the air, shouting “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
An article published in Mother Jones reveals that even before the Ferguson protests, some local governments were already concerned about the image projected by heavily militarized police and sent the equipment back to the Pentagon.
The Aledo Independent School District in Texas, was able to return rifles that the school police received from the program.
“When we received those weapons ‒ particularly the M16s ‒ our district, wisely I believe, made a decision that they did not fit into the philosophical scheme of what we were trying to do to protect our kids and our staff,” said superintendent Derek Citty.
Over the last ten years, law enforcement agencies across the country have returned more than 6,000 unwanted or unusable items to the Pentagon, according to Defense Department data.
But in most cases it has been almost impossible.
The program began as part of the War on Drugs in 1991. The Pentagon transferred excess military supplies to local law enforcement agencies, especially those that would use the equipment for anti-drug and counterterrorism activities.
Through the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, some 200,000 ammunition magazines, 94,000 machine guns, and thousands of armored vehicles, aircraft, land mine detectors, silencers, and grenade launchers have been transferred to local agencies at their request.
Many local departments are still anxious to get all possible equipment, but others now want to give it back.
An officer with the Chelan County Sheriff's Department in the state of Washington says he would love to get rid of three amphibious tanks. When officials requested one armored car in 2000, they pictured a vehicle that could withstand bullets, not land mines. They got three tanks instead.
"We really want to get rid of these," says Undersheriff John Wisemore. "We've been trying to get the military to take them back since 2004.”
But many departments now find that they can't return or trade large pieces of tactical equipment without Defense Department approval – and since the Pentagon technically still owns that equipment, they can't sell it.
A Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman says that law enforcement agencies are free to return equipment as long as they complete the right paperwork, but police departments often find the returns process “slow, mystifying or nonfunctional.”
"It's a low-cost storage method for them," says Robb Davis, the mayor pro tem of Davis, California. "They're dumping these vehicles on us and saying, 'Hey, these are still ours, but you have to maintain them for us’."
Davis Trimmer, a lieutenant with the Hillsborough, North Carolina, police department, sums up the problem: "The federal government is just not interested in getting this stuff back.”