PORTLAND, Ore. -- Rioting. Looting. Protesting. The Missouri town of Ferguson - engulfed in chaos since a police officer's deadly shooting of an unarmed black teenager - has looked like a war zone for days with a recurring theme dominating headlines: heavily-armored police carrying military weapons.
As it turns out, Ferguson police were armed with weapons of war because a Department of Defense (DoD) program that transfers excess military equipment - used in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan - to law enforcement agencies through the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO.
To date, the total value of equipment provided to law enforcement agencies through the LESO program is $5.1 billion.
Using government data, the On Your Side Investigators tracked military weapons to nine counties in Oregon and Washington.
90 assault rifles
12 night vision accessories
4 armored vehicles
>>View the list supplied by the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office (EXCEL Spreadsheet)
80 assault rifles
80 pieces of body armor
60 night vision accessories
8 grenade launchers
2 armored vehicles
76 assault rifles
490 night vision accessories
36 pieces of body armor
2 armored vehicles
294 assault rifles
10 pieces of body armor
88 assault rifles
70 assault rifles
4 assault rifles
2 Assault Rifles
63 assault rifles
84 night vision accessories
21 pieces of body armor
2 armored vehicles (Mine Resistant)
The data is only broken down by state and county and doesn't provide any further specificity. For instance, the data does not specify if a police agency received the surplus equipment versus a sheriff's office or other agency. KATU reached out to law enforcement agencies individually.
In Portland, a hotbed for protests large and small, Portland Police Bureau (PPB) spokesman Pete Simpson insists officers don't use military surplus weapons.
"It is safe to say and 100 percent accurate to say that everything community members see with Portland police is not military surplus," Simpson wrote in an email to the On Your Side Investigators.
Simpson said the bureau's Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), better known as SWAT, received surplus military rifles several years ago but said they're no longer used because they're outdated. Simpson wasn't clear on how long the PPB participated in the LESO program or when it opted out but said the officers who would know that information have all retired.
"I can say the only time you're going to see the tactical team out and the helmets and the big outside vets and armored vehicles is when there is a legitimate risk to the public, someone killing them, shooting them," Simpson said.
Even when Occupy Portland reached a fever pitch, Simpson said, military weapons were nowhere to be seen.
"Our tactical team, for example, does not respond to crowd management, they don't respond to crowd control," Simpson said. "They are out there for the armed gunman in the house; they're out there for the hostage situation or the dangerous person in the community."
The weapons used by patrol and SERT are all purchased by the department, Simpson said.
In Lane County, sheriff spokeswoman Sgt. Carrie Carver provided several reasons why her office opts in to the LESO program:
"As an agency struggling financially, we are able to get equipment from the Department of Defense that they are no longer using at no cost. For example, we needed better jackets for our patrol deputies and we were able to get jackets from this program and put our insignia on them to keep our Deputies warm.
"Right now we only patrol 20 hours a day and even when we were patrolling 24 hours a day, we would sometimes only have a Sergeant and three main office patrol deputies on duty, covering over 4,600 square miles. When responding to dangerous calls such as an armed barricaded subject, it's unsafe for the deputies and the community to send and unarmed, unprotected response of two deputies. We are able to use the equipment, such as the armored rescue vehicles, to provide another layer of presence and protection to help resolve the issue safely.
"In talking to the Deputies who are pretty knowledgeable about the program, they said that the program lists excess items and agencies can sign up for them. Some items are loans, and others are given to the agency as they are no longer needed. Many times it takes several pieces, or accessories (as listed below) to make one usable item.
"Our number one priority is safety, and the items we get from this program are with safety in mind, both for the community and our deputies. This program allows us to obtain equipment without using limited money from our General Fund, which is a bonus for community members. Essentially we are reusing equipment to save taxpayer money, and to help us provide rapid law enforcement response even with limited personnel.
"While we use the jackets and other daily use equipment every day, the other items you have listed below and not used that often- only on rescue calls or high risk calls where extra protection is needed. The armored vehicles are used in rescue situations such as floods or in snow storms to access areas that otherwise we would not be able to reach with standard patrol vehicles, and have also been used for high risk calls involving weapons."
In the aftermath of clashes between heavily-armed police forces and protesters in Ferguson, Congress is now reviewing this military surplus program.
BACKGROUND ON LESO PROGRAM
Below is information the On Your Side Investigators requested about the program's background. KATU received the following email from the program's spokeswoman, Mimi Schirmacher.
"Of all the equipment provided to law enforcement agencies through the LESO program, only 5 percent are weapons and less than 1 percent are tactical vehicles (.35 percent)," Mimi Schirmacher told the On Your Side Investigators Monday. Schirmacher is the spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the agency tasked with operating the LESO program.
"Schirmacher said 88 percent of the equipment provided to law enforcement agencies is non-tactical, which includes item such as: blankets; office equipment; sleeping bags; computers; digital cameras; tents; and individual clothing. She said only 12 percent of the equipment provided is tactical, such as: weapons; armored vehicles; helmets; night vision devices; boats and aircraft.
"The intent of the congressionally-mandated LESO program is to assist state and federal law enforcement agencies in crime fighting and protecting their citizens.
"The program was authorized by Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990-1991 to authorize the transfer of excess Department of Defense (DoD) personal property to federal and state agencies for use in counter-drug activities. In addition, the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996-1997, Section 1033 authorized the transfer of excess DoD personal property to federal and state agencies in the execution of law enforcement activities to include counter-drug and counter-terrorism missions.
"DLA has managed the program since October 1995. Initially LESO was managed out of Fort Belvoir. Today, all 1033 program requests are managed by the DLA Disposition Services Law Enforcement Support Office in Battle Creek, Michigan.
"LESO transfers of excess DoD personal property cover the full range of items used by the government: office equipment, blankets and sleeping bags, computers, digital cameras, individual clothing and equipment, aircraft, boats, vehicles and weapons.
"Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) must meet certain criteria to be accepted into the program and all requests for property are screened locally - initially at the LEA, then by a state coordinator, and finally by LESO.
"State coordinators screen all LEAs for participation in the program and LESO personnel independently validate both state and federal LEAs.
"State coordinators are appointed by the governor of their respective states. In order to be approved for the 1033 program, state coordinators must have a plan of operation that details how they will remain compliant with 1033 program guidance, policies, and procedures.
"LEAs must pay for shipping the items as well as potential storage costs. All excess DoD personal property is shipped "as is," and it is up to the individual LEA to maintain and repair items.
"Each individual agency that acquires equipment is responsible for training its personnel in the proper use, maintenance, and repair of the excess DoD personal property assigned to it.
"The excess DoD property transferred under the LESO program can also be used during natural disasters. For instance, life-saving equipment obtained through the LESO program was used by police departments in Rye, New York during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and in southern Illinois after a tornado hit Nov. 18, 2013.
"Law enforcement agencies are required to meet certain criteria in order to receive an MRAP.
"Criteria include justification for use of the vehicle, such as in response to active shooter incidents, SWAT, and drug interdiction; geographical area and multi-jurisdiction use; ability of the agency to pay for repairs and maintenance of the vehicle; and security and restricted access to the vehicle.
"MRAPs being issued to law enforcement agencies have been declared as excess by the military. It is prudent to allow law enforcement agencies to use MRAPs versus scrapping them or allowing them to sit in storage if a military service does not need the excess vehicles."