On Tuesday, Los Angeles Unified school police officials decided they would reject the military weaponry that they acquired through the federal government’s 1033 Program, which Congress passed in the early 1990s so that law-enforcement agencies could procure excess Defense Department supplies.
Los Angeles Unified had obtained three grenade launchers, 61 rifles, and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle, but will return the grenade launchers.
Education and civil rights groups are pressuring the U.S. Department of Defense to cease supplying the weapons to schools. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Texas Appleseed, joined by more than twenty other groups, wrote a letter saying:
Adding the presence of military-grade weapons to school climates that have become increasingly hostile due to their overreliance on police to handle routine student discipline can only exacerbate existing tensions. We write to urge you to end the Department of Defense 1033 Program’s transfer of military weapons to local school districts.
The letter also stated the group’s concerns that the weapons held at schools would ratchet up tensions at schools and increasingly criminalize and stigmatize students of color.
Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, stated that excessive force used at schools has been focused on students of color and those with disabilities. She asserted, “Military-grade weapons have no place on our public school campuses. We’re simply calling for a return to common sense when it comes to the way our schools are kept safe.”
L.A. Unified has joined over 20 school systems in eight states that accept weapons from the Defense Department. Over $5 billion in surplus military equipment has been sent to law enforcement agencies and school police since 1997.
L.A. Unified kept the M-16 rifles, saying that they are “essential life-saving items” and will be used by trained officers, while the armored vehicle will be restricted to use in extraordinary circumstances. Three of the M-16s went to the Baldwin Park Unified School District Police Department.
Steven Zipperman, chief of the Los Angeles Schools Police Department, said the district is considering jettisoning the MRAP: “We have to balance the need for a vehicle that can save lives and what’s best for our department, with what perception is and what community expectations are.”
Around California, the Oakland School Police Department received a “tactical utility truck,” which will be used for school events and parades, according to Sgt. Barhin Bhatt. He added, “It’s a rolling public relations vehicle. We end up having to bring out a gas can and jumper cables every time we want to drive it — it’s only used twice a year.”
Stockton school police Chief Bryon Gustafson said that all law enforcement, especially school police, want to protect the public. He acknowledged that his department has over 10 AR-15 semiautomatic rifles for its officers, obtained without the help of the Defense Department program. He said, “The job of police officers and the standards are the same whether you are Stockton police or Stockton school police… even if we have very different missions. My job is about facilitating education and making sure that students are safe at school. You hope you never need that kind of equipment. But if you do and you don’t have it — it’s a shame.”
Around the nation, the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, near the Mexican border, has its own SWAT team, which has access to two Humvees and a cargo truck from the Defense Department, as well as its own M4 and AR-15 assault-style rifles. District Police Chief Ricardo Perez said the Humvees are important because they can reach remote elementary schools surrounded by ranch land. He added, “We just want to be prepared for the kind of things that have happened elsewhere in the country, Sandy Hook and earlier before that, Columbine. These officers are trained in tactics. Some are former military.”
Spokesman Ben Horsley of the Granite School District in Salt Lake County, Utah, asserted, “It would be irresponsible to send our officers into an active shooter situation with just a handgun… When concerns have been expressed, we simply outline that civilian-type weapons like these are being purchased every day. Adam Lanza had one of these when he stormed Sandy Hook.” He added that the department will likely buy new rifles on its own.
Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee convened a hearing last week to discuss whether to keep the 1033 Program. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) stated, “We saw at our hearing a real gap in training for police departments receiving equipment through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which is even more troubling when we’re talking about the potential for misuse of these military-grade weapons and MRAPs in a school setting.”
But a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency attested that 95% of the equipment that the Defense Department ships to law-enforcement agencies isn’t weapons; less than 1% is for tactical vehicles.