Over the last five years, the top 10 beneficiaries of this “Department of Defense Excess Property Program” included small agencies such as the Fairmount Police Department. It serves 7,000 people in northern Georgia and received 17,145 items from the military. The cops in Issaquah, Washington, a town of 30,000 people, acquired more than 37,000 pieces of gear.
In 2011 alone, more than 700,000 items were transferred to police departments for a total value of $500 million. This year, as of May 15, police departments already acquired almost $400 million worth of stuff. Last year’s record would have certainly been shattered if the Arizona Republic hadn’t revealed in early May that a local police department used the program to stockpile equipment – and then sold the gear to others, something that is strictly forbidden. Three weeks after the revelation, the Pentagon decided to partly suspend distribution of surplus material until all agencies could put together an up-to-date inventory of all the stuff they got through the years. A second effort, which gives federal grants to police departments to purchase equipment, is still ongoing, however. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, since 9/11, the grants have totaled $34 billion.
Which means billions of dollars’ worth of military gear are in the hands of small-town cops who neither need the equipment nor are properly trained to use it, critics charge. At best, it’s a waste of resources (since the gear still has to be maintained). At worst, it could cost lives.
Take the 50-officer police department in Oxford, Alabama, a town of 20,000 people. It has stockpiled around $3 million of equipment, ranging from M-16s and helmet-mounted infrared goggles to its own armored vehicle, a Puma. In Tupelo, Mississippi, home to 35,000, the local police acquired a helicopter for only $7,500 through the surplus program. The chopper, however, had to be upgraded for $100,000 and it now costs $20,000 a year in maintenance.The Nebraska State Patrol has three amphibious eight-wheeled tanks. Acquired almost three years ago, their highest achievement has been helping with a flood last year and with a shooting a couple of weeks ago. Overall, it has been deployed five times. At least, officers love driving them. “They’re fun,” said trooper Art Frerichs to the Lincoln Journal Star in 2010. And the ride, according to Patrol Sgt. Loveless, “is very smooth.”
In Lebanon, Tennessee, a town of less than 30,000 people, Mike Justice, the public safety coordinator, was so eager to accumulate military goods that he used to wake up at 3:00 a.m. so he was the first person logged in at the government’s first-come, first-serve online store. Thanks to his sleepless nights, since 2007, Lebanon has collected $4 million worth of stuff, including tanks, weapons and heavy equipment like bulldozers and truck loaders. Lebanon’s tank, an LAV 150, has been used only “five or six times,” according to Justice. Although it did help save a man who tried to commit suicide, spotting him with the tank’s infrared camera.
Approximately a year ago, in the suburbs of Atlanta, two armed men robbed a convenience store and fled. The local Cobb County Police Department responded quickly. Following the directions of a witness, who saw the two suspects get into an abandoned house, they arrived at the scene, set a perimeter and called the SWAT team. It was the perfect time to roll out the amphibious armored tank, which was acquired to help officers in high-risk situations like this one. After ordering the suspects to surrender – and receiving no response – the SWAT team broke into the house and moved in. The suspects were nowhere to be found.
In the end, it was just another quiet day of duty for the tank, also known as a light armored vehicle. Worth half a million dollars, and equipped with thermal sensors, computerized tracking devices, night vision, tear-gas launchers and other gadgets, the LAV 300 was obtained in 2008 and has enjoyed an easy ride ever since. “Nobody has ever taken a shot at it nor has anybody ever taken a shot from it,” Sgt. Dana Pierce, spokesman for the Cobb County Police, told Danger Room.
The tank was not the only piece of equipment Cobb County received through the program. They also got an armored truck, the Peacekeeper, and a bunch of military AR-15 assault rifles. So many, in fact, that they can put one in every patrol vehicle. You might ask yourself how often they come in handy to fight crime. “I can’t remember when one has been discharged at a suspect,” said Pierce.
Regardless of their apparent uselessness, Justice, from the Lebanon police, thinks the program is a great way to save taxpayers’ money. “We tell all of our taxpayers around here: ‘You paid for this equipment once, when the federal government bought it,’” Justice told Danger Room. “You pay for it once, you might as well use it.”
To ease potential popular concerns, the Lebanon police painted its tank black, to match its colors with the SWAT team. “We try not to keep these things military-colored,” said Justice.
Officials in these Police Departments still maintain that these costs and this apparently unnecessary equipment are worth it. “If you can save one life,” said Lieutenant Tim Clouse of the Tupelo Police Department referring to a missing person they were able to spot thanks to the chopper, “it was very much worth it.” Pierce, from Cobb County, echoes the thought. “If it saves one life then it’s worth the money and the effort put into it.”
Hoarding weapons and tanks that are seldom used, however, doesn’t seem like a great idea to everybody.
“There’s been an unmistakable trend toward more and more militarization of American law enforcement,” Norm Stamper, former Chief of the Seattle Police Department and author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, told Danger Room. During his tenure in Seattle, he clamped down on the WTO protests in 1999, the infamous “Battle in Seattle.” It’s a response he now calls “disastrous.”
According to Stamper, having small local police departments go around with tanks and military gear has “a chilling effect on any effort to strengthen the relationship” between the community and the cops. And that’s not the only danger. “There’s no justification for them having that kind of equipment, for one obvious reason, and that is if they have it, they will find a way to use it. And if they use it they will misuse it altogether too many times,” said Stamper. What happened a year ago in Arizona, when army veteran Jose Guerena was shot down during a drug raid that found no drugs in his house, could very well be an example of that misuse.