Politics & Policy

Why Did the Feds Give More Military Equipment To Safe Counties than to Dangerous Ones?

An MRAP arrives in Mason City, Ia., population 28,000.
Searching for a method to the Department of Defense Excess Property Program's madness.

If the federal government has free military equipment to give away, it would seem logical to give more of it to counties with high crime rates and scarce resources. Unfortunately, this is by and large not the case. 

In the wake of violence in Ferguson, Mo., and public accusations of excessive police force, President Obama has ordered a review of the Department of Defense Excess Property Program, which distributes surplus military equipment to local police departments. And recently released data covering the transfers made during the president’s time in office suggest that the program’s distributions haven’t been based on what counties actually need.

Oakland County, Mich. — one of the richest communities in the country — received over $4.5 million more in equipment and supplies than did Detroit’s Wayne County, where crime is high and law-enforcement budgets are financially strapped. (The dollar amounts in the data refer to what the military originally paid for the equipment.)

Last year, there were 19 murders in Oakland County; in Wayne County, there were 355. Robberies in Oakland County numbered 615 compared with 6,050 in Wayne County. Yet Oakland received almost double the number of rifles that Wayne did, 491 compared to 265, respectively. Oakland even received a mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle (MRAP), designed to protect soldiers from land mines — hardly an issue affecting any police force in these affluent suburbs.

Local communities submit requests for equipment to the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which makes the final decision about who gets what. When asked about the Oakland–Wayne disparity, DLA spokesperson Michelle McCaskill sidesteps the question of comparative need, simply telling National Review Online that “only” 5 percent of the items transferred since the program’s inception in the 1990s have been weapons.

Aside from the fact that “only” seems an odd word to use when referring to tens of thousands of pieces of equipment, she’s right. The program also doles out supplies including clothing, first-aid kits, flashlights, and even computers.

But this doesn’t make the distribution any more logical. Not only does Wayne County have a violent-crime rate per 100 thousand residents more than 18 times that of Oakland County, its percentage of residents living below the poverty line is also more than double that of Oakland (23.8 percent versus 9.9, according to census data covering 2008–12.) And Wayne County is home to bankrupt Detroit — would it not make sense for this county to receive more of all kinds of supplies than the state’s richest county? But it didn’t work out that way.

What are the objectives of this program? Certainly, one would think that high-crime, low-resource counties like Wayne could make the case for stronger support. Did it? It’s impossible to say; again, McCaskill has no answer. She simply assures NRO that requests are reviewed to determine how to “best place the property for the law-enforcement need.”

But is this true?

Honolulu, Hawaii, received three MRAPs. No other county received more than one. Granted, some of the materials received by the city could be for purposes of addressing natural disasters, but with a violent-crime rate of just seven per 100,000 residents, was the relaxing vacation-getaway spot really the “best place” for this equipment?

Of the 21 different counties in Oklahoma that received an MRAP, more than half have a violent-crime rate of less than 1 per 100 thousand residents.

Even the smallest counties have taken substantial deliveries that seem disproportionate to their lower rates of violent crime. Knox County, Ohio, with a violent-crime rate of 0.00002 per 100 thousand, received $145,077 worth of equipment — including a crop of assault weapons worth $6,272. That works out to billions of dollars per violent crime per 100,000 people.

By contrast, the five-county area of New York City, with a population of 8.1 million and a violent crime rate of 288 per 100,000 residents, collectively received $273,500 in equipment distributions, only about $950 per violent crime per 100,000 people.

According to its website, the “DLA has final authority to determine the type, quantity and location of excess military property suitable for use in law enforcement activities.” With the recent initiative announced by the president, perhaps we can eventually get some insight into what criteria it uses to do so.

Population data comes from Census Bureau’s 2010 report, and crime statistics are from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) county crime reports in 2008.

Wayne, Oakland, and New York’s police departments did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

— Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.

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