FORT WORTH, Texas — A 4,500-pound Bobcat “Grapple Claw” was offloaded from a truck and dropped onto the downtown Fort Worth streets. The equipment, normally used by construction companies for demolition projects, was painted dark green with the Fort Worth Police Department’s logo emblazoned on the sides, with the word SWAT painted on the rear.
According to the company’s catalogue, “The Grapple Claw can be utilized to gain access to attics where suspects might be trying to hide or seek protection from the ground-level exposure.”
Accompanying the Grapple Claw were other pieces of powerful equipment, including an Oleoresin Capsicum capable of spraying high volumes of tear gas, a remote operation thermal imaging camera and other breaching tools commonly used in war.
The machines were part of a recent purchase using federal funds. Municipalities can obtain equipment from multiple federal government programs that provide support through grants or property transfers. These include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Grant Program, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Justice Assistant Grant Program, the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program, the U.S. Department of the Treasury Forfeiture Fund’s Equitable Sharing Program and the General Services Administration Federal Surplus Personal Property Donation Program.
Also, many police departments procure military-style equipment from the commercial market using their own internal funds.
Tarrant County law enforcement agencies have received more than $4.3 million in military surplus equipment through a federal Department of Defense program over the last 20 years, according to federal records.
The equipment includes rifles, mine-resistant vehicles, armored trucks, firearm accessories and breech blocks.
As citizens in Fort Worth and around the country call for defunding and demilitarizing the police, few city and county police forces in Texas have changed any of their spending habits.
One of the more controversial ways cities and counties can get their hands on military equipment is through the the federal 1033 or LESO program. Though Fort Worth didn’t use LESO to acquire its recently procured equipment, the program has become a symbol of the militarization of local police forces.
For decades, the 1033 program has sent more than $7 billion worth of excess military equipment to more than 8,000 local law enforcement agencies across the country, according to the office overseeing the program. Several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for the program to end.
The 1033 program was instituted in 1997 under the Clinton administration amid pressure to bolster police forces’ ability to fight the war on drugs. It transfers the military’s extra or outdated gear to state and local authorities who apply for it, and who are responsible for only the cost of shipping.
Fort Worth and Arlington haven’t participated in the 1033 program for more than 20 years, but the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office has had an account with the 1033 Program since 2011, though there are no records of any equipment ever being purchased. No military surplus equipment has been received or used under the purview of Sheriff Bill Waybourn.
When asked in 2014 about the program, then-Sheriff Dee Anderson said he had not applied for more equipment because “it’s not the bargain people think it is” and because the department didn’t think it was necessary to have those items.
“It looks really good on the front end,” he told the Star-Telegram at the time. “The military is giving you something free. But once you look at the upkeep, the maintenance, the cost of keeping up with it winds up costing you.”
The program has been heavily criticized since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown. Police roamed the streets in armored vehicles while carrying rifles. Similar images poured out of Minneapolis at the end of last May.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order that banned police departments from using certain military equipment such as grenade launchers. In 2017, President Donald Trump removed those restrictions through an executive order.
In Tarrant County, $3.7 million worth of equipment covers mine-resistant armored vehicles — which were designed to protect soldiers from ambushes during the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The vehicles are split between five police departments: Bedford, Benbrook, Mansfield, Southlake and Waxahachie, according to federal data about the program. The Bedford Police Department also has an armored truck worth about $65,000.
As of June, there are 8,200 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies participating in the program, including 11 in Tarrant County.
Agencies across the state of Texas have received $131 million worth of equipment — DFW accounts for about $12.1 million of that, including items such as mine-resistant vehicles (12 of them), night-vision equipment, storage units, canteens and coffee makers.
Fort Worth protesters who have walked across downtown and the West 7th District since May 31 created a petition to defund police, which includes a provision removing police access to rifles, shotguns, riot gear, armored vehicles and night observation goggles.
One year after the movement to “defund” law enforcement began to upend municipal budgets, many American cities are restoring money to their police departments or proposing to spend more.
In the nation’s 20 largest local law-enforcement agencies, city and county leaders want funding increases for nine of the 12 departments where next year’s budgets already have been proposed. The increases range from 1% to nearly 6%.
Many U.S. cities are led by Democrats who supported protesters’ calls to defund the police — a term that activists have used in different ways, including not only to push for simply shrinking the size of police forces but also shifting resources from law enforcement to social services. The demonstrations, led by Black Lives Matter and allied groups, followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year.
But city officials have found it difficult to keep police budgets down after seeing a rise in crime over the past year, with murder rates up by double digits in many cities. In the last three months of 2020, homicides rose 32.2% in cities with a population of at least one million, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Quarterly Uniform Crime Report. Law enforcement officials and criminologists say pandemic stress and a police pullback amid protests are likely contributors.
Last year, the defund movement coincided with a drop in tax revenue caused by COVID-19 shutdowns. With the pandemic fading, many local governments now have more resources due to an economic revival and federal stimulus dollars. Some city officials and law-enforcement leaders also note that changes intended to reform policing, such as enhanced training for officers, can be costly to implement. And some neighborhood groups are worried about police cuts amid the rise in crime.
Last summer, nearly half of 258 police agencies surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said their budgets had been cut or were likely to be cut. The cuts hit purchases of new police equipment hardest, followed by training, hiring new officers and overtime spending, the survey found.
According to Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women that supports defunding the police, organizers successfully pushed for $840 million in police spending cuts across the U.S., and $160 million in shifts to other social programs. Cities cut another $35 million by canceling contracts with police departments to patrol schools, the center said.
The figures represent a sliver of the approximately $100 billion spent every year on the country’s 18,000 law-enforcement agencicies.
Homicides spiked across all the major cities in Texas in 2020 regardless of whether or not local governments increased or decreased police department funding, city data on crime indicates.
All five major cities in the state reported dramatic increases in homicides in 2020. Only Austin and Dallas decreased police department funding, redirecting it elsewhere.
In 2020, Austin homicides increased to the highest the state’s capital had seen in 20 years.
Dallas ended 2020 with 251 murders, the highest murder rate it reported in 15 years.
In Fort Worth, the city saw a 58% increase in homicides from 2019, the worst in 25 years. Houston reported 400 murders in 2020, a 42% increase from 2019. In San Antonio, homicides increased 22% to 128 from the previous year of 105, after experiencing a three-year drop.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Austin, Fort Worth, and San Antonio had the first-, third-, and fourth-highest homicide increases in the U.S. in 2020.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We updated this story with details about other sources of federal funding for police departments and re-emphasized that Fort Worth did not acquire any equipment using the LESO program. (July 19, 2021)