The Department of Defense’s 1033 program is helping arm law enforcement with weapons used to wage wars. Millions of dollars of military equipment are in our backyard on standby if the worst happens.
Police say the equipment is needed to battle a threat that is equally armed. “It is equipment that we need and can use," stated Captain Glen Hanger of the Augusta County Sheriff's Office. But others say it's creating an unnecessary army. “Yeah, they are overly militarized," said John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute.
In this NBC29 special report, we investigated what some call the militarization of police departments and sheriff's offices across Virginia.
"It may just be that a local police department like Charlottesville or Albemarle might have to stand up a contingent of resources to use overwhelming force to maintain the safety of this community." said Chief Tim Longo of the Charlottesville Police Department.
"The rifles for example, helmets, those kinds of things that protect our officers were certainly valuable in resolving those incidents,” said Colonel Steve Sellers of the Albemarle County Police Department.
Congress authorized the 1033 program in 1996. The program, now run by the Defense Logistics Agency, allows excess military property to be transferred to state and local agencies. Since then, Virginia has received $107,308,266.70 in military equipment including vehicles, weapons, and general property.
"I think this is a very critical program for law enforcement," said Longo.
We combed though a Department of Defense database, line by line, to see what's here in Virginia. We found stockpiles of rifles, mine-resistant vehicles, and even a grenade launcher at the ready for local law enforcement officers. Charlottesville obtained 12 rifles, Augusta received five rifles and Albemarle has stockpiled 154 guns under the program - the most of any agency. Greene has an armored vehicle, Rockingham County received a grenade launcher and Culpeper now has a mine-resistant vehicle.
"(It) does not cost the taxpayer money because it's already been purchased," said Captain Glen Hanger of the Augusta County Sheriff's Office.
The argument is true; localities don't have to pay for equipment acquired through the 1033 program. But federal dollars - or taxpayer dollars - were originally used to buy the equipment.
"Back then and today those are ways for police departments to save money to not impact county budgets," said Sellers.
Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute says American citizens are becoming paranoid by what they see and should be concerned. "Why would Albemarle County need 154 rifles? They don't have that many policemen,” he said. "What do they need them for?"
Whitehead recently wrote a book on the topic, titled "A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State." "It’s very dangerous stuff going on and I think there needs to be oversight,” he said.
Police have taken steps to demilitarize their weapons. Both Charlottesville and Albemarle police have modified their M-16/A1s, changing them from fully automatic to semi-automatic.
"We really didn't see a need to have fully automatic weapons in an urban environment," said Longo.
But when crisis does strike, area law enforcement are confident they are armed with the necessary tools to protect and serve.
Albemarle County is in the process of returning some of the rifles; Charlottesville says it will keep theirs for now.
Both departments also acknowledge the equipment received through the program only makes up a small percentage of what they actually have on hand in terms of weapons and equipment.
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