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Mapping the Landscape of Police Militarization

Researchers use geography to understand federal program that sends military equipment to local law enforcement

By Tara Roberts

The federal government’s 1033 program allows the U.S. Department of Defense to give local law enforcement agencies excess military equipment, from armored vehicles to M-16 rifles to office furniture. 

When Lanny McAden was a deputy sheriff in Texas from 2009 to 2013, part of his job was using the 1033 program for his department. Now, as a graduate student in the College of Science’s Department of Geography at the University of Idaho, McAden is part of a research team examining the program’s patterns across the country: Where are law enforcement agencies using 1033 the most, and what characteristics of those locations lead agencies to want military equipment?

A veteran of the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps in addition to law enforcement, McAden said geography is the perfect field for studying how law enforcement works, and for finding ways to improve relationships between police departments and the communities they serve.

“Policing is territorial,” he said. “There’s not a lot of work in geography on policing, especially the social side of policing. That really caught my attention.”

Sparking an Idea

Two UI faculty members who focus on social and political geography — assistant professor Steven Radil and associate professor Raymond Dezzani — started studying the 1033 program in 2014 after protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, clashed with police, many of whom wore military-style equipment.

At the time, Dezzani said he wondered, “How did this transformation occur? How did we go from seeing police dressed in blue uniforms to military or paramilitary, essentially soldiers on the street?”

McAden was an undergraduate when he first heard about Radil and Dezzani’s research and asked to join. After earning his bachelor’s in geography in May 2016, he began his graduate studies in order to continue working on the project.

Radil and Dezzani welcomed him, in large part because of his background and familiarity with the 1033 program and military terms.

“He was our glossary,” Dezzani said.

Finding a Pattern

Radil, Dezzani and McAden worked with data released by the Department of Defense about the 1033 program from 2006 to 2013. They mapped, at the county level, where law enforcement agencies used the program, how much equipment they received and how much that equipment was worth.

Their initial findings, published in September 2016 in The Professional Geographer, showed that agencies across the country use the 1033 program at dramatically different levels. This distribution was not related to county population, indicating program use is not tied to the size of the police department or existence of SWAT teams.

In swaths of the country, including the Great Plains states, rural Texas and Pennsylvania, agencies hardly used the program at all.

Other counties used it heavily, particularly in Southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico and southern California, and in Southeastern states like Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

Brevard County, Florida, along the Atlantic coast near Orlando, brought in nearly $210 million worth of equipment from 2006 to 2013, the most of any county in the nation. El Paso County, Texas, had the highest number of equipment transfers, at 177,695.

Counties in rural Montana and northern Maine had the highest total equipment value per capita.

Digging Deeper

The researchers said the patterns they found show that police militarization is strongly tied to location.

“The fact that there may be different motives for using or not using the program is something we should take seriously,” Radil said.

The results also demonstrate that despite perception, police militarization is not a national phenomenon.

“There’s not some national conspiracy of police becoming militarized,” McAden said. “It’s a function of factors that are special to the location where police are acting.”

The next step is to find out what those special factors are.

Radil, Dezzani and McAden are now digging into the details of 1033 program use, adding more demographic data to their map as well as noting the locations of officer-involved shootings, violence against police, drug-related crimes and mass shootings.

They have a number of hypotheses about what they might find.

The 1033 program was created in 1997 to help law enforcement fight the war on drugs, so agencies in the Southwest may still be using military equipment to combat the drug trade across the Mexican border. Rural counties, like in Montana, could need heavy duty equipment for search and rescue operations.

Racial tensions between communities and police, as played out in Ferguson, could be a factor leading to high 1033 use in the Southeast and the Southwest.

“This is something geographers do really well – looking at locality and context and how that affects human behavior,” Dezzani said.

They also plan to examine whether crime statistics or community-police relations change in areas that receive large 1033 program transfers.

By understanding the 1033 program, the researchers hope to increase nationwide understanding of the motives behind and effects of police use of military equipment, to benefit both law enforcement agencies and the public.

“Thinking about how this program shapes outcomes and contributes to tensions is the starting point for me,” Radil said. “The problems we see between police and minority communities or police and the public at large is a place-based problem.”

To request a copy of the researchers’ paper, “Geographies of U.S. Police Militarization and the Role of the 1033 Program,” contact Steven Radil.

Story by Tara Roberts, University Communications.

1033 By acquisition value and per capita.
1033 by acquisition value and per capita.

Tanks and Tubas

Weapons, vehicles and protective gear are not the only equipment transferred from the U.S. military to local law enforcement agencies through the 1033 program. UI geography researchers studying the program were surprised to find tubas, ice cream makers, lumber, office chairs, karaoke machines, couches and video game systems on the list.

Much of this ties to military personnel reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, said assistant professor Steven Radil: “Essentially, the Department of Defense is bringing people and property home, and what are they going to do with all that?”

However, Radil said, since the 1033 program operates at $1 billion a year, taxpayers may be interested in knowing more about the program, what it sends and where it goes.

“The idea they’re shelling out equipment for free to local government agencies could be seen as a problem,” he said.


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