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Federal Program Sends Battlefield Gear to Rural Virginia

Caiman MTV drives through desert in Iraq, trailed by similar armored vehicles
A Caiman MRAP heads out on a mission in Camp Adder, Iraq in 2009. Similar vehicles ended up in law enforcement agencies across the state, where public records show they’ve generally been lightly used. (Anita VanderMolen, U.S. Army)

The mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle was designed for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, built to withstand everything from roadside bombs to rocket-propelled grenades.

But in April of 2014, the Defense Department shipped the vehicle, known as an MRAP, to Greene County, Virginia, population roughly 20,000.

The 30-ton, $733,000 vehicle has sat unused in storage at the Greene County’s Sheriff Office ever since, according to a public record request filed by VPM.

The transfer was part of the federal 1033 program designed to offload excess military gear to local law enforcement agencies. Nineteen other law enforcement agencies in Virginia, most of them in rural localities, currently have similar MRAPs obtained from the 1033 program. They’ve also received roughly three dozen Humvees, nearly 1,300 rifles, almost 200 pistols, 84 shotguns, and supplies ranging from golf carts to printers collectively valued at over $22 million.

The gear has also gone to agencies outside of local police and sheriff’s departments. The University of Virginia police department and the Marine Resources Commission (which includes the Virginia Marine Police) each obtained a dozen rifles, for example.

The local agencies are responsible only for the cost of shipping and storing the gear.

[Editor’s note: To see a full list of equipment stocked by your local law enforcement agency through the 1033 program, click here. The list was obtained from the Defense Logistics Agency and includes transfer through June 30, 2020.].

The program has come under scrutiny in the wake of protests across the country during which police in riot gear have attacked demonstrators with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress is pushing to reign in what they see as a militarization of police departments in a budget vote set for later this month.

The Richmond Police Department, which has been at the center of local protests, does not currently possess any equipment from the program. Virginia State Police, which has provided assistance to RPD during the protests, has stocked roughly a dozen pieces of night-vision equipment it received from the 1033 Program in 2011 and 2012.

Local law enforcement agencies argue the program is a cost-effective way to get basic equipment as well as military-grade gear that can be valuable in natural disasters and tense standoffs with heavily-armed civilians.

Armored vehicles with law enforcement approach protestors in Ferguson, Missouri
Authorities in an armored vehicle approach protestors in Furgeson, Missouri in August of 2014 (Loavesofbread/Creative Commons)

Greene County Sheriff Steven Smith said their MRAP could be put to use for floods or a hostage situation, though he’d prefer to keep it in storage.

“It's good to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” Smith said.

Public records requests filed with six other Virginia law enforcement agencies show most also left their mine-resistant vehicles largely untouched, taking it out a handful of times since they received it. The exception was the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, which has used its MRAP to execute 21 search warrants since 2017. (Virginia Beach Police Department, the largest department to receive a vehicle, said it didn’t keep records on use of its MRAP).

The 1033 program was first authorized in 1988 and ramped up in the 1990s as part of the so-called war on drugs.

In the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that featured heavily-armed police attacking protestors, President Barack Obama signed a 2015 executive order that tasked a working group with reforming the program. The group ultimately recommended banning transfers of tanks, grenade launchers, high-caliber firearms, and bayonets and required law enforcement to return their existing stocks of those supplies.

In 2017, President Donald Trump supplanted Obama’s order with one of his own that once again allowed transfers of all items but the grenade launchers. The restrictions “went too far,” Trump’s former attorney general Jeff Sessions said at the time.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate has introduced amendments to an annual defense authorization bill that seeks to reinstate Obama-era limits on the program. The House version would add new restrictions on transferring other gear, including MRAPs, silencers, and drones, with exemptions on MRAPs made for use during natural disasters.

Advocates hope tethering the bill to defense spending, which generally receives broad bipartisan support, increases the odds it will pass and be signed by Trump.

A coalition of rights and activist groups spearheaded by Demand Progress petitioned Congress to revise the program in a letter last month.

Police surround Richmond protestor at night, pinning him to the ground
Richmond police detain a protestor during demonstrations last month. (Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

Yasmine Taeb, senior policy counsel at the organization and a former Democratic state senate candidate, said the recent protests added urgency to their push. She said the group had enlisted the support of all Democratic senators and at least two Republicans -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“What we're calling for simply is to ensure that we demilitarize our communities so that we don't see tanks rolling down our streets of Richmond or Washington DC or anywhere else in the country,” Taeb said.

The changes would unlikely have a major impact on law enforcement in Virginia since they have largely steered clear of the most controversial gear, like tanks, according to John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association.

Jones said strained budgets meant law enforcement had to rely on a patchwork of grants, federal programs, and local budgets to supply their officers with equipment.

“In this country, you don't have unarmed police, you have armed police, and then you have a budget deficit,” Jones said. “So you get the best deal you can get. And sometimes the 1033 program is that.”

RPD used separate grant money to purchase its lone armored vehicle, which was made by defunct manufacturer Armet, according to spokesman Gene Lepley. In 2018, the company’s CEO was sentenced to five years in prison for supplying fake armored vehicles to the U.S. Army, including ones that substituted plywood planks for metal armor.