Earlier this year, a military surplus program that lends equipment to local police departments found its way into the national conversation.
After a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed a black man, images of police officers that looked similar to soldiers patrolling in Afghanistan and Iraq flashed across American television screens. Those police faced off with hundreds of people protesting racial disparity in police-related killings and arrested hundreds of persons, including journalists attempting to report the unrest.
But while the 1033 Program became the centerpiece in a wider conversation about police militarization, the surplus program wasn't really being used to equip and arm police forces, including law enforcement personnel in Ferguson.
We wanted to know how this military surplus program plays out in Bexar County, so we filed a public information request with Texas' military surplus administering agency, the Department of Public Safety. And we came away with two points: In the past two years, just four law enforcement agencies here acquired a total of 45 weapons through the program. But some of the law enforcement agencies that have participated in the program are surprising, like the San Antonio Independent School District.
More than 30 different law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction in Bexar County, not including federal and state law enforcement personnel. Of those agencies, 13 updated or submitted new applications for the program from 2012 to 2014.
So this is clearly not a weapons free-for-all for law enforcement agencies in Bexar County. But four agencies, the Bexar County Precinct 3 Constable's Office, the Live Oak Police Department, the Shavano Park Police Department and VIA Metropolitan Transit Police, acquired weapons through the military surplus program, with transit police acquiring the largest number of guns from the program.
The transit police acquired 18 automatic .45 caliber pistols through the program, along with five rifles. Shavano Park police got three assault-style rifles and three rifles. The Bexar County Precinct 3 Constable's Office received 10 assault-style rifles and two rifles, and the Live Oak Police Department got four rifles and a Mine Resistant Armored Personnel Carrier, or MRAP. These are the size of a small house on wheels and were designed to deflect improvised explosive device shrapnel during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. MRAPs are troop-transportation carriers and in war zones the massive vehicles are equipped with .50 caliber machine guns.
Live Oak police chief Ken Evans told the San Antonio Express-News in September that it needs the vehicle for its SWAT team. If an MRAP is necessary for a SWAT team, why do Live Oak police have the only MRAP in Bexar County, which has multiple SWAT teams?
Live Oak's MRAP aside, the weapons are just a drop in the bucket. The takeaway here is that there are likely thousands of weapons used by law enforcement in Bexar County and the guns aren't being acquired via the military surplus program.
However, our public information request was interesting on another front, too. We learned about law enforcement agencies we didn't even know existed, like the Bexar County Hospital District Police Department, which is also enrolled in the military surplus program. And who would have thought VIA Metropolitan's transit cops would have acquired 50 percent of all military surplus weapons that have come to Bexar County during those years?
The biggest surprise for the Alamo City, though, when it comes to the military-surplus program, is surprisingly rooted in the educational system.
The SAISD Police Department, the 13th-largest public school police department in the entire country, according to a 2008 census survey of state law enforcement agencies, received tactical vests from the program. An SAISD spokeswoman told KENS 5 earlier this year that the vests were used for training and the school district doesn't plan on acquiring more equipment through the program.
Texas, however, actually leads the country in the number of school districts that participate in the program, with 10 districts receiving equipment, including 64 assault-style rifles, 18 rifles, 25 automatic pistols, extended magazines and 4,500 rounds of ammunition, according to Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that bills its mission as promoting social and economic justice for Texans.
In response to this revelation, more than 20 education and civil rights groups sent a letter to the Department of Defense's Logistics Agency calling for an end to sending military surplus equipment to police who operate in educational settings.
"Military-grade weapons have no place on our public-school campuses," said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed. "We have already seen the way that much more common weapons—like Tasers and pepper spray—can be misused in school settings, and know that excessive use of force in schools is often targeted at young people of color and students with disabilities. We're simply calling for a return to common sense when it comes to the way our schools are kept safe."
While our open records request left us with more questions than answers, one thing is certain, there are more police departments than ever: school police, airport police, bus police, hospital district police and on and on. Those law enforcement agencies have weapons and the Drug War era has fostered a warrior-cop mentality across the nation.
The line between the military and police that was once solid is fading into memory, as the United States has adapted to a post-9/11 world, where Americans no longer question whether police forces need assault-style rifles, MRAPS and night vision goggles, or whether school districts need beefed-up police departments.
Citizens should question local police departments and police departments should address militarization questions rather than discount those concerns. Because this could progress to where all police officers, not just SWAT team members, approach their jobs the way soldiers, who operate in hostile combat zones, operate. If that happens, even American citizens might be viewed by law enforcement as hostile, simply because all that military gear makes police approach their jobs like soldiers at war.