Raleigh, N.C. — After an 11-month ban from a program designed to supply local law enforcement with free surplus military gear, North Carolina agencies can again receive equipment from office furniture to weaponry.
But not every participating police department is so eager to continue with the program.
Federal officials suspended agencies statewide from the so-called 1033 program statewide in March 2014. That's when the state Department of Public Safety, which coordinates distribution of the equipment in the state, missed a deadline to submit an inventory report. After the state submitted the report last year, the federal Defense Logistics Agency lifted the prohibition in early February after officials said they were satisfied the state was properly tracking its gear.
In the meantime, almost 60 additional sheriff's offices and police departments in North Carolina have qualified and signed on to the federal program and, with the reinstatement, can request and receive surplus gear from the Department of Defense as of April, according to DPS Communications Director Pam Walker.
Among the program's most high-profile items are weapons such as riot shotguns and rifles, as well as helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles – gear that has raised concerns about the militarization of local police forces.
In North Carolina, many of the largest recipients of equipment are smaller departments that also receive everything from duffel bags to desks. In some cases, police chiefs say, these surplus supplies – provided free of cost – have kept their agencies afloat and allowed them to keep serving the public.
"This is just not a weapons program," Michael Tart, who since October has led the state office coordinating gear distribution. "This is a program that benefits the local law enforcement agencies."
But 10 agencies in the state remain on suspension, according to federal records, and the program has fallen out of favor with about 50 other departments terminated from the program either by their own request or for failing to submit paperwork and attend mandatory training.
For Siler City Police Chief Gary Tyson, the decision not to attend that training was intentional. His department stopped requesting equipment through the program years ago, and although he said they still have a large cargo truck, they don't have much use for it anymore.
"I just didn't see the need for the military-type equipment they were getting in the past," Tyson said.
After skipping the mandatory training, the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority Police Department was also terminated from the program.
RDU spokesman Andrew Sawyer said airport officials decided the equipment wasn't necessary for an airport environment. He declined to elaborate, citing airport security.
"Operating at the airport is different than operating at the community level," Sawyer said. "We have different needs, and the program no longer met our needs."
Termination from the program means the agency had to return the two tear gas grenade launchers it received in 2010.
Agency sees problems with 'paper chase'
But Youngsville Police Chief Daren Kirts said returning the equipment from the 1033 program isn't always easy. He said he's gone back and forth with DPS officials in an attempt to relinquish two .45-caliber pistols his 10 sworn officers just never use.
"I've been trying to get out of their program for almost a year now, and the only way I could get out is not to play anymore," Kirts said.
He skipped the training, which led to his department's termination. He sent the pistols back to the state in February via UPS, but he said he still hasn't received confirmation that they're no longer his responsibility.
Although he said he thinks there are good aspects to the program, he wasn't happy with the "paper chase" that governed how weapons were tracked.
"It is very troubling to me, and I've jumped through great hoops with their inventories," Kirts said.
Tart said he's aware of the frustration some law enforcement agencies have expressed at the termination process but said there are a number of federally required steps to get rid of gear before getting out of the program.
"That property has to be properly disposed of," Tart said. "It's not a situation where they can just drive to Raleigh and dump their M16s in a warehouse somewhere."
Walker said there have been major improvements to the way the state keeps records of the military surplus equipment, some of them spurred by new requirements on the federal level. After the launch of a new federal system for inventory reporting in the fall of 2013, she said, DPS officials realized they couldn't meet the January inventory deadline at the staffing levels they had at the time.
"A short time before that, the department’s new administration had determined that the program needed improvements due to antiquated processes and record keeping," Walker said in an email. "The department’s Law Enforcement Services Section has set as its highest priority that all tactical equipment obtained through this program is properly accounted for."
Reviews come amid mounting concerns nationwide
Yet, there are still discrepancies between state and federal records.
The State Highway Patrol, for example, remains suspended from the 1033 program due to an 11-year-old claim by federal officials that the agency was missing a rifle. According to Walker, the federal office managing the program says it sent the rifle to a Division of Motor Vehicles unit now overseen by the Highway Patrol, although state officials say that's not the case.
"There is no SHP or DMV record that either agency ever received the weapon in question," Walker said in an email. "This has been documented for 11 years, and while numerous inquiries and research has been done on this matter, there is still no evidence that NCSHP or DMV received the weapon."
Tart said the federal Law Enforcement Support Office now considers the weapon issue a "cold case" and is working to reinstate the Highway Patrol.
"Apparently, removing an LEA from 'suspension status' is a rather exhaustive process that federal LESO dictates," Tart said in an email.
Criticism of the 1033 program – and the broader militarization of police officers – mounted in 2014 after the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Images of protests that followed Brown's death depicted St. Louis-area officers in camouflage and body armor, firing tear gas and aiming rifles at residents.
The concern prompted the Obama administration to review the 1033 program last year, finding "a lack of consistency" in its implementation.
Although that wasn't the reason he opted out of the program for his Siler City officers, Tyson said he was cognizant of the controversy when he made the call.
"I do believe we need to become more guardians than warriors, and when you look more like a warrior, it's hard to be seen as a guardian," Tyson said. "We are not an occupying force."