Photo via Shutterstock.
Photo via Shutterstock.

Police in even small towns have surprisingly powerful military hardware. During a time of protest against police violence, that worries Michigan activists.

GENESEE COUNTY, MI  — Grand Blanc is a town of just under 8,000 located about 15 minutes south of Flint. The town’s residents are largely retirees and young professionals, the schools are highly rated, and its crime rate is substantially lower than national averages. 

But inside its local police department are military grade weapons, like their unmanned vehicle designed for uses like clearing explosives or acting as a mobile weapons platform in an active war zone.   

Nearby in Flint Township, police own a mine-resistant vehicle. 

Other departments around Genesee County own multiple military robots called PackBots, which were used in Afghanistan to clear caves for American ground forces. 

Infographic by Tania Lili.

These are examples of the military-grade weaponry Genesee County has obtained through a Department of Defense program to give surplus military equipment to local police departments. This program, called the 1033 program, has resulted in Genesee County being the most militarized place in Michigan.

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Flint activist Nayyirah Shariff first became aware of the 1033 program after seeing the shocking images of police in military grade hardware following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson, Missouri police in 2014. 

She was reminded of the program earlier this year seeing similar images at protests following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, who also died in police custody.

“It just feels like it’s a dangerous moment for our democracy,” Shariff told The ’Gander. “I would say it’s very telling, as someone who has done a lot of demonstrations in Michigan and around the country.”

Shariff is concerned about the stories of police using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray on protesters and journalists in recent months, especially when they’re doing so equipped in the hand-me-downs of an army. 

As protests continue nationwide and federal law enforcement officials are preparing to deploy to Detroit, Shariff has turned her attention again to the 1033 program.

What Genesee Got from 1033

Genesee County is particularly heavily armed. From 1999 to 2017, the sheriff’s department and park rangers amassed equipment valuing at $1.2 million provided at no cost through the 1033 program, with big-ticket items including more than 150 military grade rifles and 33 scopes, two unmanned autonomous vehicles, and pan-and-tilt thermal viewers used in key strategic installations by the military. 

It’s not just the county, though. In addition to their landmine-resistant vehicle, Flint Township has four autonomous vehicles, and each cost the Department of Defense more than $300,000. Meaning that Flint Township alone has acquired as much in dollar value from the 1033 program as Genesee County. 

Thetford Township, which has a population of slightly more than 7,000, has $20,000 in body armor for its local police, as well as an item identified as a “signal generator” worth $64,000. In 2016, Thetford reported a crime rate of zero, and tends to be far ahead of national averages in terms of safety.

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Data on what localities received what hardware comes from the Department of Defense reporting on the 1033 program and accounts for acquisitions through 2017. A major concern among those studying the 1033 program is the generally lax state of federal record-keeping on the program. 

“The federal government doesn’t really keep track of a lot of this equipment that goes to local law enforcement agencies,” Anna Gunderson, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, told Wired. “The agencies themselves are inconsistent in keeping track. That just makes it really difficult for anyone to try to learn about the program or study it to try and analyze it, because we don’t have a very clear understanding what kinds of equipment actually are in the hands of these agencies.”

 A spokesperson for the Defense Logistics Agency told Wired that their agency, which oversees the 1033 program, changed its filing system in 2013. As a result, studies on the impact of the 1033 are inconsistent, Wired reports.

From mine-resistant and autonomous vehicles to body armor and shotguns, communities in Genesee County have amassed millions in surplus military equipment, and that equipment can’t be left idle, by law. 

The 1033 program gifts this equipment to local police on the condition the equipment be used within a year of being acquired. 

Armored police vehicles. Photo via Shutterstock.

The Way 1033 Changes Policing

While studies are conflicted on the outcomes of the 1033 program, there are notable differences between the armed forces and local police. The equipment given to police departments is something soldiers specifically train with, as opposed to police departments, which are responsible for providing their own training. 

And the rules of engagement are very different between active war zones and downtown Flint. They’re stricter in war. 

The Washington Post found that the rules governing the use of lethal force in the military are actually far more strict than those employed by police departments. This, the Post explains, is related to a comparative lack of training to deal with high-stress situations and a generally more relaxed attitude toward discipline among local police. 

On average, police spend 58 hours in firearms training, and only eight hours in deescalation training, reports Campaign Zero. Campaign Zero is a policy research group focused on efforts to reduce police violence in America. 

In 2017, President Donald Trump reversed an Obama-era decision to limit the scope of the 1033 program, USA Today reports. This reversal was billed as providing for police safety, but, as noted by Wired, studies on the veracity of that claim are inconclusive. 

“It is both exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible for the administration to lift the ban on the transfer of certain surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement organizations,” Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told USA Today. 

“Just a few summers ago, our nation watched as Ferguson raised the specter of increased police militarization. The law enforcement response there and in too many places across the country demonstrated how perilous, especially for black and brown communities, a militarized police force can be,” said Nelson.

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Shariff described 1033 acquisitions of military equipment as a power fantasy, one absent the proper training and context to use that power. And as police presence continues to mount in places around the state and country in light of continuing protests against police violence, that power fantasy is dangerous, she said. 

“Why do you feel a need to have things like [mine-resistant vehicles]?” she said, alluding to a self-gratifying practice from police. 

Genesee County’s Sheriff Department declined to comment on this story.