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Police Departments Are Grabbing Up Free Military Hardware

Here's how (and why) they're using it

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Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson on the department's heavy military gear: "You're not going to see it at Treefort." - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson on the department's heavy military gear: "You're not going to see it at Treefort."



Welcome to the Gun Show

Police departments acquire free military hardware through the Department of Defense's 1033 Program, which distributes everything from body armor and service pistols to semi-automatic assault rifles and MRAPs. The program was established by the National Defense Authorization Act in 1997. Since then, it has aided in the transfer of more than $5.1 billion in property to more than 8,000 state and local police agencies. In 2013, it transferred nearly $450 million in materiel nationwide.

The gear shepherded through the 1033 program includes M-1911 .45-caliber pistols, AR-15 assault rifles, helicopters and planes, 10- to 12-mpg SWAT vans and MRAPs. Armored vehicles, like those in Ada and Canyon counties, are distributed to police agencies based on the number of vehicles available, the date they're requested, whether the requesting agency is in a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and the size of the area a given vehicle will serve.

Requests for repurposed military equipment paint some Idaho communities in extreme colors. While BYU-Idaho classes are in session, the rural East Idaho town of Rexburg has a population of about 30,000, but according to a 2013 application filed by the Rexburg Police Department, and obtained by Boise Weekly through a Freedom of Information Act request, "this area will be designated with the HIDTA status in the near future." (As of September 2014, HIDTA status still hasn't been applied to Rexburg.)

Bingham County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, requested an MRAP in 2013 to service a seven-county tactical team, covering 10,155 square miles. The Washington County Sheriff's Office, which also requested an MRAP in 2013, described the Brownlee Dam on the Snake River as a "high terror risk dam located in our county." None of the three agencies have, as yet, received their requested MRAPs.

BPD has been a prolific beneficiary of the 1033 Program, and though it has received an MRAP, it has also received materiel of a more benign nature. Between the inception of the 1033 Program and the present, the department has received 196 helmets, five pairs of binoculars, a telescope, a protective bomb suit, 30 gas mask filters, two sets of night vision goggles, 40 storage chests, 15 chemical suits and five flak jackets. Twelve AR-15 assault rifles were also granted to BPD, which the department has converted to semi-automatic weapons and uses them exclusively for training. Caldwell has its own MRAP and the Ada County Sheriff has a REVA SWAT vehicle, all obtained through the 1033 Program.