Statements by two Massachusetts police chiefs suggest that the Massachusetts State Police are failing to properly enforce the rules of a program that provides police with military weapons and other equipment. The 1033 program, which was launched in the early 90s, transfers surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense to police departments across the country. 117 Massachusetts police departments participate in the program.
The 1033 program has often faced criticism that it lacks oversight, provides police departments with weapons that are inappropriate for police work, and contributes to the militarization of police.
The program has come under heightened scrutiny in recent months in response to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the program, Senators have criticized it during a Congressional hearing, and a bipartisan duo of representatives have introduced legislation to put more constraints on it.
During a recent appearance on Greater Boston, a news program on the local PBS affiliate, Marshfield Police Chief Phillip Tavares described some of the equipment his department has received through the program.
“Almost 20 years ago, we received eight M16s. We don't use those now other than for parades. They are locked in the armory in the basement of the police station,” Tavares said. “They were not deployed on the street. They were in the armory in the event that there was ever a real emergency where they'd be needed.”
Tavares said that although the department doesn't have a practical use for the weapons anymore, it was necessary to acquire them at the time because the town couldn't afford the $2500 “patrol rifle” the department currently uses. He did not specify the model of the newer weapon.
“Everything we've asked for, there's been a real need,” Tavares said. “We don't have a use for [the M16s] now other than parades, but there was a tactical use for them back when our town couldn't afford to buy the patrol rifle.”
The federal law which outlines the 1033 program requires the governor of the state in which the participating police department operates to certify “with respect to the type and amount of equipment so requested” that the equipment is “necessary and suitable for the operation of [the requesting] agency.”
The State Police, who oversee the program's implementation on behalf of the governor, had to sign off on a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Defense before any local police departments could obtain equipment. The agreement states that the property must be “suitable” for use by the requesting agency, must be “placed into use within one (1) year of receipt,” is not for “speculative use/possible future use,” and that the granting of requests will be “based on bona fide law enforcement requirements.”
None of these requirements appear to have been met with respect to the M16s, considering Tavares said they are outdated, have never been used for law enforcement purposes in the past, and won't ever be used in the future for anything other than displaying at parades.
According to the Memorandum of Agreement, unused equipment is supposed to be transferred to another police department or returned to the Department of Defense for destruction, however, the Marshfield Police Department has managed to hang on to its M16s for nearly two decades.
The same pattern was shown earlier this year when West Springfield Police Chief Ronald P. Campurciani was interviewed by The Republican about two M79 grenade launchers his department received through the 1033 program in 1996.
Campurciani characterized the weapons – which are for shooting tear gas in a “crowd control” situation – as antiquated, obsolete, inaccurate, and a dangerous fire hazard and said they have never been used in the past and are unlikely to ever be used in the future. Campurciani, who did not become police chief until 2012, even told The Republican that he was not sure why the weapons were acquired in the first place. Nevertheless, the West Springfield police have yet to relinquish them.
Kade Crockford, a staff member with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said these incidents show that the State Police have been failing to police the 1033 program correctly.
“The State Police clearly haven't been providing the required oversight, which is just one of many problems with the 1033 program's implementation in Massachusetts,” Crockford said. “The Department of Defense in past years put the program on hold because of non-compliance with the program's rules in the states, and it seems like that might need to happen again.”
In 2012, the Department of Defense suspended the entire 1033 program for several months after news reports revealed misuse, including an Arizona sheriff's department that had transferred some equipment to non-police agencies and was planning to auction off other equipment.
Prior to that, Governor Deval Patrick temporarily put the 1033 program on hold for the entire state of Massachusetts. After The Boston Globe published a critical report in 2009 suggesting the program had gone too far, Patrick quickly suspended the state’s participation and ordered a review. The program was relaunched in 2010 with new restrictions added, but it appears it is still not regulated effectively enough to ensure that local police departments do not keep unnecessary weapons.
“We are told that the 1033 program is a boon to cash strapped local law enforcement, but it appears as if the police don't have the resources they need to implement the program according to its own guidelines. If that's the case, they shouldn't participate at all,” Crockford said.
Crockford said she is concerned that the military equipment obtained by police throughout the state has the potential to be misused if there is a lack of oversight.
“The main danger here is mission creep. While the toys are mostly tucked away and away from public scrutiny, they may appear unexpectedly in situations that are totally inappropriate, like at protests. Ferguson showed us what can happen when toys purchased or gifted for 'terror' or serious crime are turned on peaceful protesters,” Crockford said.
A recent report on the militarization of police by the ACLU of Massachusetts recommends that local governments play an active role in the 1033 program by reviewing requests by their police department before they are allowed to move forward.
The State Police and Governor's Office did not respond to requests for comments on this story.
The Bay State Examiner has submitted a public records request to the Massachusetts State Police for documentation of any 1033 program compliance reviews of the Marshfield and West Springfield police departments. We are awaiting a response.