One South Carolina County Shows the Insanity of Giving Military Gear to Cops

Richland County, South Carolina, has a population of 400,000 or so. But the sheriff there swore he needed a 20-ton armored vehicle and Army-grade cargo planes.

President Trump signed an executive order expanding a controversial U.S. Defense Department program that transfers military equipment—including armored vehicles, aircraft and firearms—to civilian law enforcement agencies.

If history is any guide, the move will put a lot of unnecessary, inefficient, or even dangerous equipment in the hands of police departments that simply don't need it, and aren't prepared to manage it.

One South Carolina law enforcement agency has learned that the hard way. The Richland County Sheriff's Department has received from the feds armored vehicles it can't use and transport planes that only landed it in legal trouble—and even got it suspended from the equipment-sharing program.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the expansion of the "1033 program" at a National Fraternal Order of Police event in Nashville on Aug. 28.

"The executive order the president will sign today 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," Sessions said.

President Obama curtailed the 1033 program, which dates to the 1990s, in the aftermath of the August 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, where activists protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown met with overwhelming military-style force from heavily-armed local and state police riding in armored vehicles.

The Obama administration narrowed the list of items available for donation, and demanded that police departments return certain kinds of ex-military equipment they'd previously received, including bayonets, camouflage uniforms and tracked armored vehicles.

In the final year before Obama's 2015 reforms, 1033 distributed nearly a billion dollars worth of equipment among the more than 8,000 law-enforcement and other agencies that have enrolled in the program. According to the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages 1033, five percent of the items it has transferred are weapons and less than one percent are tactical vehicles.

Trump campaigned on fully reopening the 1033 program. In responses to a National Fraternal Order of Police questionnaire, Candidate Trump called 1033 "an excellent program that enhances community safety" and promised to rescind Obama's restrictions.

But there were good reasons, besides the shocking optics of the Ferguson demonstrations, for Obama to scale back 1033. The program has proved ripe for abuse. In a July 2017 report, the Government Accountability Office, the feds' main watchdog agency, warned that the Defense Department "lacks reasonable assurance that it has the ability to prevent, detect and respond to potential fraud and minimize associated security risks" associated with 1033.

GAO researchers posed as representatives of a fake federal law enforcement agency and acquired, via 1033, more than a million dollars worth of ex-military weapons including rifles, bomb components and night vision goggles. "It was like getting stuff off of eBay," one researcher said.

Leon Lott, the long-serving sheriff in Richland County, knows this all too well. In 2005, Lott acquired a former U.S. Army M-113 armored personnel carrier, ostensibly for his department's SWAT team. The M-113 has tracks like a tank does and armor capable of deflecting smaller calibers of gunfire.

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Lott loved his M-113, which he nicknamed "The Peacemaker." He defended the vehicle as a vital tool for handling worst-case scenarios including a major terrorist attack or the occupation of an abortion clinic by armed extremists. But in fact, the Richland County Sheriff's department never actually deployed the vehicle for its intended purpose.

Instead, it formed the core of a kind of public-relations roadshow. "Churches, festivals, schools, you name it—everybody wanted the tank," Lott told local media. "You know, the kids loved climbing on it, going inside."

As part of the post-Ferguson 1033 rollback, in 2015 the Obama administration ordered Lott to hand over the M-113. By then, Lott was in trouble for mismanaging a separate batch of ex-military hardware his department acquired via the 1033 program.

In 2013, the Richland County Sheriff's Department received two, twin-prop C-23 transport planes that the Army had recently retired.

Richland County, one of the most developed and urban counties in South Carolina, already operated ex-military helicopters and had no obvious need for transport planes. A few months after receiving the C-23s, Lott's department arranged to trade them to Win Win Aviation in Illinois. In exchange for the C-23s, Win Win offered to give Lott a new Cessna plane sporting high-tech surveillance gear worth half a million dollars.

(The C-23s were hot items in the 1033 program. Black River Technical College in Arkansas scored one after filing a simple, 100-word request with the feds stating that the college "will use the airplane for hostage training, drug courier training, dignitary protection training and criminal take-down training.")

But in doing so, Lott was essentially using military equipment as currency. When the Obama administration found out, it demanded Lott hand back the C-23s. But by then Lott had already sent them to Win Win. Richland County Sheriff's Department asked Win Win to kindly return the transports, but the company refused -- and sued the department. "This has all been a huge misunderstanding," Lott insisted. "Nobody did anything improper."

The Obama administration disagreed. It suspended Richland County from the 1033 program in 2015. It's unclear whether the Trump administration has lifted the suspension. The Richland County Sheriff's Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

But shortly before the suspension, Lott managed to get at least one last major piece of equipment via the 1033 program—a 20-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected armored vehicle. The same kind of vehicle that Missouri police drove into Ferguson in their war-like response to the 2014 demonstrations.

Apparently without irony, Lott nicknamed his MRAP "Mojo." But the easy availability of ex-military equipment has been anything but good luck for Richland County. As 1033 expands under Trump, other jurisdictions could discover this hard truth for themselves.