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Research Questions

  1. How effective is the LESO program in providing excess DoD equipment to LEAs?
  2. How frequently does the Department of Defense (DoD) declare equipment "excess" and then rebuy the same equipment shortly thereafter?
  3. What are the perceptions and critiques of state program coordinators and LEA points of contact — particularly those suspended from the program or who have had recent police traumas?
  4. What are the perceptions and critiques of congressional staffers, Government Accountability Office investigators, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and other stakeholder groups?
  5. How aware are average Americans of the program, and how do they perceive it?

The Defense Logistics Agency's (DLA's) Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) provides excess Department of Defense property — everything from desks to rifles to airplanes — to local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies (LEAs) across the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of some of the material transferred to LEAs, LESO has been the subject of congressional, Government Accountability Office, and public scrutiny for almost two decades. Recent events — including the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, protests — increased interest in the program. Opponents of the program argued that LESO was at least partially responsible for what they perceived to be an increased militarization of the police, while proponents believed that this program not only made police and citizens safer but exemplified good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act required an evaluation of the LESO program, which provides thousands of LEAs with millions of dollars of excess property annually. The authors of this report find that LESO manages an efficient program that effectively reuses excess property, benefits the law enforcement community, responds diligently to oversight, and is faithful to congressional intent. However, these efforts are unlikely to resolve perceptions that the program contributes to the militarization of police. Defining what is or is not appropriate militarization of police forces and addressing concerns of how the excess property is employed and its effect on community policing is beyond the authority of DLA. This report presents three optional paths ahead.

Key Findings

Amount and value of transfers

  • In fiscal years (FYs) 2015 to 2017, over 2.2 million uncontrolled items (e.g., tools, office furniture) worth nearly $1.2 billion, and over 3,000 controlled items (e.g., drones, aircraft) worth nearly $775 million, were transferred to 2,790 state and local LEAs, 174 federal LEAs, and 22 tribal LEAs.
  • LEAs requisition more uncontrolled property than controlled property.

Types of items transferred

  • From hand warmers to laptops to rifles, over 7,000 unique types of items were transferred to LEAs through the LESO program in FYs 2015 to 2017.
  • The authors found no clear relationship between LEA size and equipment acquisitions, though nearly two-thirds of mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles were acquired by LEAs with fewer than 100 sworn officers.

Suspensions and terminations

  • During FYs 2014 to 2016, there were 268 LEA suspensions and 24 LEA terminations from the program; the most frequent reasons were missing weapons, lack of compliance, and protracted issues regarding missing weapons.

DoD repurchase of "excess" equipment

  • Without access to all of DoD's purchasing data across all DoD components over the five-year period, a full analysis is not possible.

Program perceptions

  • LEA representatives generally endorse the program, citing the ability to obtain assets they might not be able to afford otherwise.
  • Surveys using RAND's American Life Panel revealed that 48 percent of respondents were unaware of programs providing LEAs with excess military equipment and that 46 percent were in favor of limiting the equipment provided in some way.

Recommendations

  • Maintain the status quo: We find that the LESO program is professionally managed, with some recurring issues, but overall there is appropriate attention to managing to congressional intent.
  • Modify program emphasis and distribution of controlled equipment: Maintain the status quo with a few modifications, such as removing the emphasis on drug, border, and terrorism missions and ensuring that LESO is not the first provider of potentially controversial and high-visibility controlled equipment — though this would put a financial burden on smaller, less-resourced LEAs.
  • Shift responsibility for controlled equipment to another organization: Move distribution approval and oversight responsibility from DLA to another organization — most likely the Department of Justice, which is better positioned to assess the impact of the program on policing.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Excess Property and LESO Program Processes

  • Chapter Three

    Transfers, Losses, Suspensions, Terminations, and Rebuys

  • Chapter Four

    Stakeholder Interviews

  • Chapter Five

    Public Perceptions

  • Chapter Six

    Optional Paths Ahead

  • Appendix A

    Executive Order 13688

  • Appendix B

    Executive Order 13809

  • Appendix C

    Standardized Interview Protocol for State Coordinators and State POCs

  • Appendix D

    Standardized Interview Protocol for LEA Officials

This research was sponsored by the Defense Logistics Agency and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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