Nestled in Texas’ southern Brazoria County, the city of Alvin boasts a quaint historic depot, 12 grassy city parks and a red-brick community college along its neat gridwork of tree-lined streets.
The city of 26,000 also has six reconnaissance robots, a mine-resistant vehicle, six mine-detecting sets and three $14,000 army combative kits—all military hand-me-downs acquired since 2014.
“You know, it never hurts to be prepared,” Alvin Police Chief Robert Lee said last summer. “Back when the last hurricane hit, there was a lot of this stuff we could have used.”
Before the wrath of Hurricane Harvey, that may have seemed like a stretch.
But when the storm dumped more than 50 inches of water over Southeast Texas last August, law enforcement agencies like Alvin came to the rescue with their ambush-protected vehicles, Humvees and five-ton trucks all obtained through a controversial Department of Defense excess property giveaway program.
Dubbed “1033” after the section of law that created it, the program has come under criticism for bulking up law enforcement with resources designed for war. But local police agencies say the equipment—credited with helping save more than 10,000 people in Harris County during Harvey— took them to areas they couldn’t have reached without it.
“They tend to think that we’re militarizing ourselves. No, we’re not,” said Sgt. Jimmie Cook, who helps oversee the Harris County Sheriff’s Office 1033 program.
“We’re not looking for M16s. It’s useful gear that helps supplement our budget and it doesn’t cost the county anything except for the tank of gas to go pick it up.”
Since the 1990s, the 1033 program, run by Department of Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office, has provided free military surplus equipment to agencies that might not otherwise be able to afford it.
Those federal giveaways can include everything from air conditioners, like the 19 Houston police received in January, to the 90 rifles nabbed by 90 League City in 2014 and the 22 binoculars collected by Alvin police last year.
“They helped us save lives,” Houston police Chief Art Acevedo said. “It’s a reminder that the equipment we get from the military isn’t about the equipment; it’s about its use.”
The program first came under widespread scrutiny in 2014, when police in Ferguson, Mo., showed up in armored vehicles in response to peaceful protests over the shooting of Michael Brown.
Images of the protests sparked nationwide criticism over the military hand-me-downs, even though the Ferguson vehicles apparently didn’t come from the 1033 program. Yet the outcry did nothing to dampen police interest in the program, which has since doled out more than $13 million of equipment just to departments in the greater Houston area, according to federal data.
‘Why Not Be Prepared?’
“Basically, the government is saying, ‘Here, if you have a use for this, you can have it,'” Lee said. “And why not be prepared?”
Editor’s Note: Reversing an earlier decision to curtail 1033 by then-President Barak Obama, the Trump administration revived the program this summer.
That preparation helped Houston police rescue some 3,500 flooded-out locals, including elderly and disabled residents, some of whom were stuck in water up to their necks. Smaller departments like Alvin and Freeport saved a couple of hundred each using gear such as military trucks and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office used 1033 equipment to rescue more than 9,000 adults, along with hundreds of children and pets, Cook said.
Early in the flooding, the sergeant got a call for a high-profile rescue: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. The dispatch center downtown was taking on water, and Cook – riding in a five-ton truck acquired through the 1033 program – was summoned to evacuate the sheriff. Or so he thought.
When Cook pulled up in the open-bed truck, the sheriff hopped in and demanded to go on some rescues.
“He didn’t want to quit,” Cook said. “At one point I had to tell him it’s too dark outside, and he said, ‘See you tomorrow.'”
Though military equipment isn’t necessarily made for flood rescue, clearly some of it works.
The open-bed, five-ton trucks can go in water 8 to 9 feet deep, Cook said. The deuce-and-a-halfs do the same thing but offer a little less pulling power. The light-medium tactical vehicles—$108,000 military trucks known as LMTVs—aren’t quite as good in high water given the large number of electronic components inside. Humvees work well in floods, but they don’t hold a lot of people.
Meanwhile, the MRAPs—the most controversial of the bunch given their roughly $700,000 value and explosive-proof armor— are reliable in at least 3 to 4 feet of water, but they’re a little harder to load with people.
We probably helped rescue maybe around 200 people over a five-day period.”
“It came in very handy for us,” said Freeport police Capt. Raymond Garivey, whose department used its mine-resistant vehicle for the first time in the post-Harvey floods. “We probably helped rescue maybe around 200 people over a five-day period.”
Whatever success they’ve had, the intended law enforcement use of heavy military equipment is a bit of a mixed bag.
While Cook said the “main importance” in getting Humvees and five-ton trucks in the first place was for high-water rescue, the MRAP went to the department’s SWAT team.
The Houston Police Department also reserved its MRAPs for SWAT use, but sent out the SWAT team for rescues anyway in the hurricane’s aftermath.
Alvin police got theirs with hurricanes in mind, though it’s also used for a regional SWAT team, according to Lee. Unfortunately, the city’s mine-resistant vehicle was sidelined with a brake problem during Harvey, and the department relied instead on its deuce-and-a-half and five-ton trucks for roughly 226 rescues, according to Capt. Todd Arendell.
Richmond didn’t bring out its mine-protected machinery in Harvey at all, instead opting to keep the pricey 15-ton piece of equipment away from washed-out roads. But the equipment did come into use during last year’s Memorial Day floods, according to Lt. Jesse Martin, who oversees the Fort Bend County city’s 1033 acquisitions.
“We evacuated 72 people,” he said. “And two cats, one cockatoo and I can’t remember how many dogs.”
Despite the high-dollar value of some of the equipment, demilitarized vehicles cost local departments nothing except the tank of diesel to drive home. The program doesn’t pay for any transit, so for smaller items, departments can either pay for shipping or go pick the items up in person. Often that means a trip to San Antonio, Fort Worth or Fort Polk, La.
‘Civilianizing’ the Gear
Then, officers “civilianize” the gear, painting over the camo and adding the department name. Sometimes they add other 1033 items such as spotlights, ladders, backboards. Occasionally, they look to eBay for more easily found items such as new seats.
The program is also a big source of more mundane items, including everything from lamps to sofas to treadmills. Departments in the Houston area have snagged more than $1 million of those and other small items just since 2014, according to a data analysis by University of Idaho assistant professor Steven Radil.
And while some of the smaller goods are useful for department lobbies and gyms, some are also key for handling natural disasters.
“I just got four tourniquets,” Martin, the Richmond police lieutenant, said after the storm. “Normally a new tourniquet costs $28. And it cost me 76 bucks to get 40 of them shipped from Colorado by UPS.”
Alvin police found sleeping bags, cots, bedding and backpacks – all of which came into use when dozens of city employees and officers needed to sleep at work for days during the storm.
Although a wide range of the available equipment can be useful in natural disasters, the program prioritizes agencies that plan to use their goods for drug interdiction and anti-terrorism efforts. It’s tactical uses like those that have long been the most controversial.
But hurricanes “are the best-case scenario of when these types of resources and programs are perfectly appropriate,” said Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach Police Department lieutenant commander now active with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of cops backing criminal justice reform.
“But that (use) is the exception, not the rule,” she added. “For years they’ve always asked, ‘What are you going to be using this equipment for?’ And anyone who said this equipment was going to be used to fight the drug war would be first in line.”
A Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman confirmed that drug interdiction uses take priority, if there’s not enough equipment to meet all requests.
Critics still question the size of the federal influence the program represents.
“This is an enormous subsidy program under the name of drug interdiction and counter-terrorism,” Radil said. “It’s a partial federalization of local law enforcement.”
After Harvey, however, a number of local departments are talking about how to increase their 1033 stock. The sheriff’s office wants better lighting for night-time rescues, Alvin wants equipment to hoist medically frail evacuees into their MRAP, and Richmond wants a back-up generator. But the biggest demand is more vehicles.
“We need more trucks, and more training,” said Lt. Frank Fernandez, who oversees HPD’s 1033 acquisitions.
Houston police had seven operational five-tons when the storm struck, so the department resorted to using some 20 to 30 dump trucks to supplement their rescue operations.
“We want to get away from dump trucks because dump trucks are not made for hauling people – they’re made for hauling rocks,” Sgt. Mark Bailey said. That means they’ll need more five-tons, though it’s not clear how many it will be practical to store and maintain.
“If we have the end of the world like with Harvey, we could use a hundred trucks,” Bailey said.
But some departments say Harvey hasn’t changed much about what equipment they’ll look for in the future.
“The flood has interrupted it, but the business of life continues,” Arendell said. “And our need to respond didn’t change.”
Keri Blakinger is a staff writer for The Houston Chronicle. This story was one of her projects as a participant in the 2017 John Jay/Koch Texas Justice Reporting Fellowship program. Her original story can be accessed here. She welcomes readers’ comments.