Armed for War: Pentagon surplus gives local police an edge

(May 12, 2014) – As the American military draws down its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, stateside ports, armories, depots and warehouses are packed with excess military material and vehicles, some of them none-the-worse from their tours in overseas war zones.

A lot of those weapons, uniforms, trucks and mine-resistant vehicles are patrolling the streets of central Indiana at virtually no cost to local law enforcement agencies.

“It saves a substantial amount of money,” said Steve Harless, deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Administration. “Last year alone we saved approximately $14 million and this year we’re on pace to save a little over $13 million.”

That’s millions of tax dollars saved by 326 Indiana sheriffs and police chiefs who otherwise could not afford the gear they say they need to protect the public from increasingly heavily armored criminals.

“When I first started we really didn’t have the violence that we see today,” said Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department. “The weaponry is totally different now that it was in the beginning of my career, plus, you have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build IEDs and to defeat law enforcement techniques.”

As he spoke, Downing was perched in the driver’s seat of a $650,000 Mine Resistant Vehicle (MRAP) that once protected soldiers in Afghanistan from mines, rocket-propelled grenades and .50-caliber weapons.

The Morgan County SWAT Team acquired the armored vehicle for essentially the cost of gas and the time of two deputies to drive to Mississippi and pick it up and bring it back home to Martinsville.

“We were actually approached when we’d stop to get fuel by people wanting to know why we needed this…what were we going to use it for? ‘Are you coming to take our guns away?’” said Downing. “To come and take away their firearms…that absolutely is not the reason why we go this vehicle. We got this vehicle because of the need and because of increased violence that we have been facing over the last few years.

“I’ll be the last person to come and take anybody’s guns.”

Downing said his department could have used such a vehicle when it responded to a barricaded gunman during a SWAT call out in 2011, or when it was faced with removing children from a Martinsville middle school during a shooting earlier that spring.

All police chiefs got a wakeup call in late February 1997 when two men dressed in body armor and carrying automatic weapons robbed a North Hollywood, Calif., bank and engaged in a shootout with police. The high-powered weapons of the LAPD SWAT Team were locked up in the armory of the department’s training academy. Officers literally took weapons off the walls of local gun stores to arm themselves against the gunmen.

“If we go to a bank robbery, let’s say, and we’re armed with our sidearm, we’re going to be outgunned,” said Franklin Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan who has acquired several M-16 rifles from the Pentagon 1033 surplus program. “And so we’re trying to be proactive and not try to be scary but we need to be as well-equipped as the bad guys sometimes, so…if they’re going to be having an assault rifle, we better have an assault rifle.”

O’Sullivan says every officer in his department has been issued an M-16, some of them from the military surplus. His officers advised military and state officials of the status and whereabouts of the weapons several times a year to protect against theft and misuse.

“You have quarterly checks and once a year you have to do the Memorandum of Understanding and a physical check once a year and then quarterly checks.”

When the weapons reach the end of their product life, they are returned to the military.

Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson may unveil legislation next month to better track the military gear and restrict the program. Several southern law enforcement programs were investigated for excessive and disproportionate participation in the program, essentially applying for and receiving items that are unsuited for their mission.

“We get requests on a daily basis and verify what their requests are and that they actually need those items and then we approve those requests or deny them based on their eligibility,” said Harless of the Indiana program.

Not all the military surplus is lethal. The Cumberland Police Department has a pickup truck, a Humvee and an ATV that it acquired through the program, along with a handful of rifles and some clothing.

“We’ve been able to get a lot of other vehicles and equipment through the program and for small departments, especially it’s a really a big benefit to us to be able to do that,” said Cumberland Police Chief Mike Crooke. “You don’t use it daily but when you need it, it’s really good to have it.”

The Law Enforcement Support Office estimates it has transferred $4.3 billion worth of military property to local and state agencies since its inception in 1990. Much of this is gear that observers say would be scrapped, stored or transferred to foreign governments if not reused by the military.

“At the end of the day, it gives the guys the ability to go home safely,” said Downing, “So, no matter what the price tag is on it, as long as they get to go home, that’s all that really matters.”

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