A Pentagon program has outfitted state and local law enforcement agencies in Maine with nearly $10 million worth of surplus military equipment since its inception.
A vast quantity of rifles, riot gear, armored vehicles, computers, night-vision scopes and cold-weather gear deemed surplus by the Department of Defense has been transferred to civilian law enforcement agencies across the U.S. through the federal Defense Logistics Agency. The program, known as the 1033 program, has equipped campus police, Maine’s warden service and police departments in several small Maine towns with large concentrations of military-grade and tactical equipment.
It’s alarmed advocates who warn against a creeping militarization of municipal police forces. Michael Kebede, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, called the accumulation of military equipment “disturbing.”
Such “weapons of war” have been used in drug searches and raids since the Bush administration deployed them in the “war on drugs” in the 1990s, Kebede said.
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“The primary targets tend to be black and Latino people,” he said.
The Obama administration restricted the 1033 program in 2014 after law enforcement agencies in Ferguson, Missouri, deployed armored vehicles and other equipment obtained through it to suppress anti-racist uprisings after police shot and killed Michael Brown. The Trump administration reversed those restrictions in August 2017, after heavy police union lobbying.
To date, the greatest allotment of military equipment in Maine has been ordered by the police department in Sanford, a York County city with a population of roughly 21,000. Sanford police have ordered more than $1.5 million worth of goods since the program’s inception, including two Navistar Defense MaxxPro Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection vehicles, which were designed to protect U.S. soldiers from deadly mines during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vehicles were delivered in 2013 and 2019 and valued at more than $575,000 apiece. Sanford also nabbed two utility trucks through the 1033 program valued at more than $91,000 apiece.
Sanford’s two MRAP vehicles are among five listed by the Defense Logistics Agency to have been distributed throughout the state. Others have been transferred to local police departments in Lewiston, South Portland and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
A BDN reporter spotted one outside the Sanford police station during a June 6 protest, part of a national uprising against racism and police brutality that has erupted in cities across the U.S. following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Sanford is the primary agency for the Southern Maine Special Response Team, a certified 14-member team similar to a SWAT team trained to respond to active shooter or “hot zone” situations, Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly said.
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“We use the armored vehicles to basically drive right up to a house or building where a suspect may be secreted,” Connolly said. “In most instances, the sight of the armored vehicle alone is enough to convince most suspects to surrender.”
They may also be deployed to evacuate a civilian or officer trapped inside a barricaded situation, he said.
The agency has used the armored vehicles several times in the past year, with “at least two suspects surrendered from barricaded locations once the vehicle was positioned outside the location,” Connolly said.
“If Sanford were to disband the SMSRT, or if for some reason we left the team, the vehicles would either be adopted by another eligible agency, or turned back to the military for disposal,” Connolly said. ”The armor and other large parts would be removed, and the vehicle would be crushed.”
The 13-officer police force in Rumford, which serves a population of roughly 6,000 residents, has acquired more than $337,000 worth of military equipment — more than 95 percent of it since 2014. Rumford ordered 13 night-vision sniper scopes, valued at $1,185 apiece in April.
More than $437,000 worth of equipment — most of it cold-weather gear and radios — was transferred to nearby Mexico, an Oxford County town with a population of 2,700.
In 2013, officer George Cayer of the Oxford County police force wrote a six-page memo to Sheriff Wayne Gallant arguing for the need for equipment like the MRAP vehicle on anti-terrorist grounds. He said it would allow deputies to respond more quickly to potential attacks.
“The Western Foothills of the State of Maine, primarily the Oxford County area as well as the area surrounding Oxford County, currently face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities,” Cayer wrote in the 2013 memo. Cayer is now a detective with the Rumford police department and did not respond to an inquiry from the BDN.
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More than $839,000 worth of equipment has been allocated to the sheriff’s office in Oxford County, most of it for laptops, portable radios and night-vision goggles. The program has helped the department obtain useful equipment without adding to budgets or raising property taxes in the region, according to Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright.
“It’s a useful tool and it has helped us,” Wainwright said.
Wainwright and other law enforcement officials added that some equipment has arrived at their departments inoperable. For example, a thermal imaging system with CCTV surveillance cameras given to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, valued at $55,000, was determined to be inoperable, said Capt. Craig Smith of the department’s Support Services Division.
The 1033 program awards surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies by request, typically at no direct cost to towns or municipal budgets besides shipping. The equipment was originally paid for by federal tax money allocated to defense spending programs that facilitated U.S. foreign wars. Much of it was rendered obsolete by additional defense spending allocations, which provided U.S. military with updated equipment.
Congress created the controversial arms program in 1990 to assist state and federal law enforcement in the War on Drugs. In 1997, the program was expanded to include all law enforcement agencies, making military equipment available to local departments and prioritizing those with anti-drug or anti-terrorism programs. The Pentagon kept details of the program secret until 2014 when the Marshall Project issued a report.
The national uprising after George Floyd’s death has shifted the political winds on the issue, sparking a debate between police reform and defunding policing. The ACLU has advocated for local and national legislation to give communities more oversight over their police departments’ acquisition of military goods, Kebede said.
“Demilitarizing police has to be part of defunding police,” Kebede said. “Demilitarizing without defunding is like trying to improve a moribund system rather than reimagining it altogether.”