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Who Holds the Reins on Federal Law Enforcement?

| February 27, 2019

Without much fanfare, the Government Accounting Office released information on Federal Law Enforcement Officers (FLEOs) within the government to “Congressional Requestors” on December 18thof 2018.  It did not receive much attention, but its contents are alarming.

In light of the information, we should be having two very serious debates at the federal level. The first is reconsidering the structure of federal law enforcement—who exactly we give police powers to and why. The second is the structure of those we can agree on from the first part of this debate.  Anyone enforcing the law should carry a firearm for the protection of themselves and others (as should any private citizen retain that same right). Anyone responsible for security should carry a firearm, otherwise they aren’t really providing security.  If we can agree on these as self-evident truths, then a real discussion of the role (and equipping) of law enforcement should be a deep-dive into philosophy on the subject where all sides can come to some agreement.

SWAT teams are sometimes a necessity.  Heavier weapons than what are normally carried by our police or even federal investigators are sometimes needed—and when they are, then nothing else will do. But those instances—where there is a true need—are rare.  Originally developed for hostage/barricade situations, sniper situations, and rioting, SWAT teams are now a part of daily understanding of policing and are used for even low-level warrant services.  FLEOs seem to thrive on the optics of this phenomenon when compared to local law enforcement.  As we unfortunately shifted from the original role of SWAT, federal law enforcement seems to have taken that shift and run with it.

The necessity for brevity requires only looking at the most glaringly ridiculous data taken directly from GAO’s document:

Department and ComponentMissionNumber of
FLEOs
Environment Protection Agency (EPA):
Office of Enforcement and Compliance
Assurance
Focuses on criminal conduct
that threatens people’s health
and the environment; enforces
the nations’ laws by investigating
cases, collecting evidence,
conducting forensic analyses;
and provides legal guidance to
assist with prosecutions.
159
Health and Human Services (HHS):
Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
FDA’s Office of Criminal
Investigations protects public
health and furthers the FDA’s
mission by investigating
suspected criminal violations
of the Federal Food, Drug, and
Cosmetic Act and other related
laws.
233
Health and Human Services (HHS):
National Institute of Health (NIH)
Protects our country’s
scientific research and the
NIH research community,
ensures that the mission
of NIH is not impeded by
personal attacks, loss of
assets, criminal activity
or acts of terrorism.
83
Internal Revenue Service (IRS)IRS Criminal Investigation
serves the American public
by investigating potential
criminal violations of the
Internal Revenue Code
and related financial crimes
in compliance with the law.
2,159

Though this is an abridged table, the agencies selected were chosen because of the limited (or non-existent) number of violent crimes that the agencies should be tasked with investigating.  The number of law enforcement officers assigned to these agencies is interesting—considering their lack of a traditional law enforcement mission and the ability of other more appropriate agencies to absorb the functions of any of them—but their “need” for firepower is more concerning.  (NIH at least tries to cloak their existence in terms of dire threat; the others listed don’t even do that.)

Of other interesting information, the report states “16 agencies also reported the number of rounds of ammunition they bought. The 16 agencies reported buying a total of at least 767 million rounds of ammunition during this time [a seven-year fiscal period].” 767 million rounds of ammunition.

And what exactly do they do with that ammunition?  Let’s look at an example directly from the report:

“For example, HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) officials said that, in addition to quarterly qualifications, officers also complete eight additional training modules each year that cover topics that include responding to multiple assailants, use of cover, and reactive shooting techniques.”

Other portions of the report (page 29-32) list various firearms that are deployed by these agencies, as well as tactical equipment—some of which seems more suited to a special operations team in the Hindu Kush than to federal tax collection or inspection of navigable waterways.

For instance, the Office of Investigations for the EPA—tasked with helping to “protect the environment in a more efficient and cost-effective manner by performing audits, evaluations, and investigations of EPA and its contractors”—acquired seven pieces of breaching equipment, four pieces of tactical lighting, and four firearm suppressors. The IRS Criminal Investigation office purchased 103 “aiming devices” and 178 “specialized image enhancement devices,” as well as tactical lighting.

It’s difficult to know what NIH’s Division of Police acquired by way of weaponry and ammunition, as they deemed such information to be too “sensitive” and did not report them. NIH did, however, report being in possession of “pyrotechnics and large-caliber launchers”. Despite the report’s explanation that these were needed to assist other agencies in the event of “extreme circumstances,” that an agency primarily tasked with scientific, medical, and public health research would genuinely need pyrotechnics or large-caliber launchers beggars belief. 

(To be fair, none of the agencies with inventory information reported having any riot shields, camouflage uniforms, explosive devices, or weaponized aircraft, though. So that’s reassuring.)

The OIG agents for HHS, whose stated mission is “Protects the integrity of the Department’s programs as well as the health and welfare of program beneficiaries by conducting criminal, civil and administrative investigations of fraud and misconduct related to departmental programs, operations and beneficiaries,” train up to eight times per year in addition to quarterly qualifications—in topics that seem more relevant to officers on patrol or SWAT teams than a primarily administrative-investigator function. There are 461 of those agents.  Many smaller municipal SWAT teams that are actually operational would be jealous of such a training tempo.

We’ve pointed before to the potential for “mission creep”when non-traditional law enforcement agencies start stockpiling weaponry and other materiel. The firearms and equipment allotted to an agent should be consistent with their job function.  If we unpacked more from this report, debated the necessity of not only the equipment, but of these agencies’ FLEOs, there would be more agreement than disagreement on the concerning nature and astounding waste associated with the findings in this report.

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Randy Petersen spent 21 years as a police officer working in the patrol, investigations, training, and administrative divisions.  He retired as a patrol watch commander in 2014 and became the director of a police academy here in Texas.  He is currently the Senior Researcher for the policing initiative at Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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