Salt Lake City Council considers restricting military surplus equipment for police

As protests over police violence heated up this summer, demonstrators throughout the nation often found themselves facing off with officers equipped with armored vehicles, rubber bullets, grenades and other military-grade equipment.

Local law enforcement agencies have increasingly stockpiled surplus military property, partly spurred by the 9/11 attacks and the War on Drugs.

Police departments have easy access to decommissioned military equipment, from office furniture to vehicles to weapons, thanks to a provision in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act. Often called the “1033 Program,” the provision allows the Secretary of Defense to send those unneeded items to domestic law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, usually for free. All the police departments typically pay is the cost of shipping.

As the Salt Lake City Council explores police reform in response to loud demand from residents, it’s currently considering restrictions on the police department’s access to military surplus equipment.

A draft ordinance presented to the council Tuesday, without much discussion, bars using city funds to acquire armored or weaponized drones, combat aircraft, grenades, grenade launchers, military grade weapons, silencers and armored vehicles.

For donations and other military surplus items, the police department would need to notify the mayor and City Council and explain the need for the equipment. From there, the request would go out for public comment. The City Council would then adopt a resolution for or against the acquisition, although police could still obtain the surplus items if the council recommends against it.

The police department would also be required to submit an annual report listing all military surplus items in its inventory.

“This really is directed towards policy concerns across the nation, connected to the Department of Defense 1033 Surplus Equipment Program,” city attorney Katie Lewis told council members, although staff also explained that the ordinance would apply to any military surplus program, whether federal, state, municipal or private.

In an interview, Detective Michael Ruff with Salt Lake City Police said the department did not have a position in favor or against the ordinance.

“We work within parameters given to us by the mayor and council,” Ruff said. “We don’t have much surplus equipment anyway.”

The most recent data shared by the federal Law Enforcement Support Office, which manages the 1033 Program, shows Salt Lake City Police has acquired 80 5.56 millimeter rifles since 2000, each worth $500. The most recent rifle shipped in 2013. Ruff said most of those firearms are no longer used.

“The rifles, when we got them in 2000 or whenever, were already old and we’ve been in the process of getting rid of those,” Ruff said. “I don’t even think they’re issued, they may just be in storage. I’m not 100% sure on whether they’re out and about or not.”

The department also acquired a mine resistant vehicle worth $658,000 in January 2017. Ruff said the vehicle is mostly used by the SWAT team on certain warrants. He confirmed it was used during a May 30 protest that turned violent.

“It literally is an armored vehicle, there are no weapons on it,” Ruff said. “It’s basically a portable piece of cover.”

City Council staff said the police department also regularly obtains military surplus ammunition to use in practice scenarios, although ammunition was not listed in the Law Enforcement Support Office data. Ruff confirmed the ammunition was used for practice, but he did not know if it came from the 1033 Program or how often the department acquired surplus bullets.

“The things that come from that [1033] Program are not something we need. When we outfit our officers, we buy things specialized for law enforcement” including body cameras and load-bearing vests, Ruff said.

Law Enforcement Support Office data show 56 police departments, sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies, including the Division of Wildlife Resources, have acquired military surplus through the 1033 Program.

Some of the most recent acquisitions include a mine resistant vehicle sent to the Provo City Police Department in April of this year and another mine resistant vehicle sent to the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office in March.

In 2019, Murray City Police Department received its own mine resistant vehicle. Orem Police acquired 226 rifle magazine cartridges. More benign equipment like storage containers, lamps, search lights and wheels went to Summit and Washington counties. A full list of the Utah law enforcement agencies that participate in the 1033 Program and items acquired is included in the spreadsheet below.