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Obama's new restrictions on military equipment for cops will have little effect in SoCal

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 08:  MRAP vehicles sit in the Redistribution Property Accountability Team (RPAT) yard at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) on March 8, 2014 near Kandahar, Afghanistan. The RPAT facility is responsible for shipping military equipment back to the United States after it has been damaged or is no longer need in Afghanistan. The facility also redistributes equipment within the country if its needed by another unit. President Obama recently ordered the Pentagon to begin contingency planning for a pullout from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 if Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai or his successor refuses to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scott Olson/Getty Images
MRAP vehicles sit in the Redistribution Property Accountability Team (RPAT) yard at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) on March 8, 2014 near Kandahar, Afghanistan. The RPAT facility is responsible for shipping military equipment back to the United States after it has been damaged or is no longer need in Afghanistan.

President Obama's executive order this week limiting the kinds of military equipment the federal government can dole out to police won't make much of a difference in Southern California, experts said. Agencies here haven't received much of the now-banned equipment and aren't being asked to return it.

For instance, local agencies didn't have any of the large-caliber guns or weaponized planes that are on Obama's new list, a KPCC review of data on the 1033 program found. Most of the now-prohibited equipment here consists of camouflage clothing, bayonets and a handful of grenade launchers.

Specifically, as of March 31, 2015, California law enforcement agencies have the following now-prohibited equipment:

  • 399 bayonets, including 40 at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department
  • 65 pieces of camouflage clothing, including 46 at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department
  • 11 grenade launchers, including eight at the Sacramento Police Department
  • 1 tracked armored vehicle, with Modesto police

Prohibited items are a tiny fraction of the military equipment already donated to California law enforcement—just 0.2 percent.
Nationwide, an NPR analysis of 1033 data since 2006 did not find any police agencies had received firearms of .50 caliber or greater or any "weaponized aircraft" donated by the program.

"If you read every single one of the restrictions, none of them will have any meaningful impact," said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who studies police militarization.

He said prohibiting items that were never given out in the first place, like tracked armored vehicles and .50 caliber weapons, is "deceptive". Those were "never part of the problem,"  he said.

Brian Moriguchi, of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, agreed that the executive order isn't likely to change much.

"I really don't see how it applies to local law enforcement," he said.

Bomb-defusing robots

That doesn't mean California agencies don't receive battlefield-ready equipment — just that most military gear wasn't and still won't be prohibited. The 1033 data shows California agencies have:

  • More than 8,000 rifles, including 1,678 at the LAPD and 1,105 at the L.A. Sheriff's
  • 42 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the type designed to withstand bomb blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including at police in El Monte, Azusa, Whittier and Pomona
  • Helicopters, bomb-defusing robots and gym equipment

Those items are all permitted under Obama's executive order.
Moriguchi said some of the excess military equipment  - including armored vehicles and bulletproof vests - could be crucial in keeping police safe while responding to dangerous situations, like a school shooting or terrorist attacks.

"We don't want to die out there," he said. "I think police need to be equipped with the resources and equipment to do their jobs safely and to protect society.

"I think [Obama's] missing that point," Moriguchi added.

'Souvenirs'

The White House could choose to recall the prohibited items already provided to police. But Kraska said things like bayonets are "souvenirs" and doubts that camouflage clothing will be recalled.

And the program is by no means dead. SoCal law enforcement agencies can still apply for guns, armored vehicles and riot equipment through the 1033 program.

Now they'll be required to submit extra paperwork justifying the items, and to report on "significant incidents" involving donated gear. A civilian body, such as a city council, will have to sign off on equipment requests.

And police can always buy the equipment themselves.