by G.W. Shultz, California Watch
Local police will temporarily be barred from receiving free surplus Defense Department weapons until state governments can prove they’ve adequately kept track of an array of military equipment – including armored vehicles, computers, tactical gear and more – handed over through a special program.
Federal officials attribute the one-time nationwide inventory in part to recent stories from California Watch and The Arizona Republic and state-by-state inquiries made by the Associated Press into oversight of the program, created by Congress during the 1990s to help police in the wars on drugs and terror.
California Watch reported in March that agencies in the Golden State had snapped up more in cast-off military goods during 2011 than any other year in the program’s two-decade history. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department acquires an average of $4 million to $5 million annually in excess gear and uses four long-haul semitrailers to crisscross the country picking it all up.
Michelle McCaskill, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, said in an email that her office wants state coordinators of the program to certify their inventories of “weapons, and in some cases, other specified kinds of property.” McCaskill said it’s unclear how long the inventory will take, but weapons will not be issued until the requested information is received and verified.
“There was not a total cessation of the program, and the only items not being issued now are weapons,” she wrote.
The Associated Press first noted the development June 8 and said accounting records kept under the program vary state by state. “Most of the state surplus program coordinators who have responded to records requests from the (Associated Press) say they only keep paper records. The few states that keep electronic records only recently made the switch from paper.”
The Arizona Republic revealed in May that the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office had acquired millions of dollars worth of Humvees, barber chairs, guns, fire trucks, thermal-imaging scopes and more through the program, but it planned to sell some of the equipment in order to pad its budget. Local police are permitted to auction off surplus items after a period of time, but not expressly for the purpose of raising money.
“In March, (Sheriff Paul) Babeu told Pinal County supervisors that he had acquired a huge amount of military goods that would be sold to help balance his office’s $47 million budget,” according to the paper’s story. “He said auctions were to begin in April, and proceeds ‘could crest 200,000 (to) a half-million (dollars) in a period of six months.’ (Retired Arizona Department of Public Safety officer Norman) Jones said the Pinal County practice is outrageous. ‘They hoard stuff,’ he said. ‘They’ve opened a little swap meet.’ ”
California Watch found that last year alone, more than 163,000 items valued at more than $26.2 million were transferred to local agencies in the Golden State, including a full-tracked tank given to rural San Joaquin County. Police across the country went after nearly a half-billion dollars worth of equipment, including 60 aircraft and thousands more weapons than the previous year. Dollar amounts listed in data obtained by California Watch were based on what the military initially paid for the items.
Examples of equipment included riot shields and tactical apparel given to campus police at El Camino College in Torrance; hundreds of rifles for the California Highway Patrol; bayonet knives, ammunition cans and workout equipment for the LA sheriff; and 34 M16s for the Elk Grove Police Department in Sacramento County.