‘Thunderstruck?’: Missouri Governor Helped Ferguson Get Surplus Military Equipment
Melissa Quinn /
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who yesterday said he was “thunderstruck” to learn how militarized police in Ferguson had become, signed off as recently as January on statewide participation in a Pentagon program providing local police departments with surplus equipment.
In authorizing Ferguson police and other local law enforcement agencies to apply for firearms and other equipment, Nixon also directed his administration to “conduct management and oversight of the program,” documents show.
Should Nixon, a Democrat elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, have been surprised? Participating jurisdictions, including agencies in St. Louis County, received weapons and equipment as early as 2010 and again in 2012, 2013 and this summer. Ferguson is a St. Louis suburb.
>>> This report was updated to reflect President Obama’s remarks this afternoon.
In an interview yesterday on ABC’s “This Week,” Nixon commented on the images of the Ferguson Police Department using military-style equipment and tactics following protests and riots in the St. Louis suburb after an officer fatally shot Michael Brown, 18, who was black. Nixon said:
I, all of us, were thunderstruck by the pictures we saw. I mean, the overmilitarization, the MRAPs rolling in, the guns pointed at kids in the street. All of that, I think, instead of ratcheting down, brought emotion up.
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Nixon, the state’s attorney general for 15 years, later called in the National Guard to counter renewed violence, looting, and unrest in Ferguson.
Missouri participates in the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033), which allows local and state law enforcement agencies to obtain surplus equipment.
To apply, police chiefs and sheriffs must complete a 1033 application, shown below. The Missouri application, which has Nixon’s name and title at the top left, is the same for local and state departments, Mike O’Connell, communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, told The Daily Signal.
Included in the application, which was revised last month, is a “State Plan of Operation” between the state and law enforcement agencies. It states:
The Governor of the State of MISSOURI has designated in writing with an effective date of January to implement this program statewide as well as conduct management and oversight of this program.
Once an application receives approval, the Defense Department’s Law Enforcement Support Office gives a “screening authorization letter” to the local drug law enforcement agency.
When a local police chief or sheriff receives the equipment, the application states, they “will be held accountable for their inventory and see the property obtained through this program is used within the guidelines of the program.”
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The Missouri Department of Public Safety can make random visits to ensure the property is being used correctly by local law enforcement.
Police departments obtain the equipment, which includes armored personnel carriers, ballistics helmets, ballistics vests, weapons, and aircraft, “for use in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations,” the state agency’s website states.
The Pentagon began the 1033 program — then under a different name — in 1990, when transferred military equipment was authorized for use in drug-enforcement-related activities. In 1996, its use expanded to include terrorism-related events.
Since 2006, the Defense Department has distributed 432 mine-resistant armored vehicles, 400 other armored vehicles, 500 aircraft and 93,000 machine guns to local police departments, National Journal reported.
President Obama addressed the Pentagon’s 1033 program late this afternoon during comments on Ferguson in a White House press conference. The president acknowledged that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many local law enforcement agencies were “ill-equipped for a potential catastrophic terrorist attack” and needed better equipment to respond to potential threats. However, Obama said it was time for a review of the program:
I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they’re – what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need. Because, you know, there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.
Tensions in Ferguson escalated after a town officer, identified six days later as six-year veteran Darren Wilson, shot and killed Brown on Aug. 9. Witnesses said Brown was not armed.
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Newsweek reported that St. Louis County law enforcement agencies received tactical equipment, including utility trucks, night vision devices, and reflex sights, from the Pentagon. O’Connell told Newsweek the agencies also received a dozen 5.56 mm rifles and six .45-caliber pistols through the 1033 program.
Some onlookers said police officers in Ferguson look as if they’re in a war zone, and the scene sparked debate over the need for small police agencies to have military equipment in their arsenals.
Obama also announced today that Attorney General Eric Holder would travel to Ferguson on Wednesday to meet with the FBI and Department of Justice personnel doing their own investigation of the shooting.
>>> 12 Unbelievable Photos from Ferguson
Read the application for surplus Pentagon weaponry and equipment approved by Nixon:
Missouri 1033 Application by The Heritage Foundation