Update, Sept. 18, 10:54 a.m.: Following complaints, the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department announced Tuesday it will return three grenade launchers but keep an anti-mine armored vehicle and 61 M-16s it acquired through a Department of Defense program. The surplus automatic M-16 rifles were converted to semi-automatic, the department said.
Update, Sept. 19, 10:51 a.m.: San Diego Unified School District announced Thursday, Sept. 18, that it would return the anti-mine armored vehicle it received through a Department of Defense program.
More than 20 national education and civil rights advocates sent a letter Monday to Department of Defense officials, urging them to stop giving U.S. school police departments anti-mine vehicles, military-grade firearms like M16s, and even grenade launchers.
News reports and lists of recipients of surplus hardware reveal that assault-style rifles, armored vehicles and other military supplies have been handed over to school districts large and small, from California, Texas, Nevada and Utah to Florida, Georgia, Kansas and Michigan.
In California, the San Diego Unified School District acquired an 18-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, called a MRAP, through the DOD’s 1033 program to transfer surplus supplies to civilian law enforcement. In June, the Los Angeles Unified School District also received a MRAP, which was designed to protect U.S. troops under attack in Iraq.
Over time, the L.A. school police also have received 61 M-16 rifles and three grenade launchers that have never been used.
“Adding the presence of military-grade weapons to school climates that have become increasingly hostile due to their over-reliance on police to handle routine student discipline can only exacerbate existing tensions,” said the protest letter, signed by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and public-interest law groups Texas Appleseed of Austin, Texas, and Public Counsel, which is based in Los Angeles.
Controversy over so-called militarization of school police comes just as the L.A. district is enacting policies that limit ticketing of students for minor infractions and curb the controversial use of officers in school discipline, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.
Both Texas Appleseed and Public Counsel have been active in pushing for states and district to reform policies regarding how school police are deployed on campuses.
Other signatories to the letter objecting to military hardware for school police include the Children’s Law Center, the Education Law Center, the National Center for Youth Law, the Advancement Project — also active in urging school police reforms — and the L.A.-based Labor-Community Strategy Center.
Scrutiny of transfers of military supplies from the DOD’s Defense Logistics Agency erupted following revelations that many city police departments have been accumulating military hardware designed primarily for war.
Among the cities that obtained military equipment for free, or just for delivery costs, was Ferguson, Missouri, where local police rolled out armored vehicles and officers in combat-like gear to respond to protests in August over an officers’ fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
President Obama in August ordered a review of the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency did not respond immediately to a request for a comment on the letter regarding school police. But on Sept. 9, a Defense Department official addressed the 1033 program’ s provision of hardware to law enforcement in general during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Each state has a 1033 program state coordinator who is appointed by the state’s governor and who approves law enforcement agencies that apply to participate in the program. The state coordinator also screens and approves requests those agencies make for material listed in catalogues, explained Alan Estevez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology.
“It is worth noting that we are not ‘pushing’ equipment on any police force,” Estevez said. He said the Defense Logistics Agency conducts a basic review of requests based on size of a department. For example, he said, a law enforcement department of 10 officers would not receive 20 M-16 rifles.
The letter objecting to the program noted that 10 Texas school districts, the most reported in one state so far, have been receiving DOD hardware.
“Altogether, these 10 districts have been received 64 M-16 rifles, 18 M-14 rifles, 25 automatic pistols, extended magazines and 4,500 rounds of ammunition,” the letter said. “Some of these Texas districts received armored plating, tactical vests and military vehicles.”
Texas’ Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, which has 33,500 students, has outfitted its own SWAT team with these supplies, the letter said.