@NCCapitol

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NC won't say which agencies received surplus military gear

Posted September 5, 2014 2:54 p.m. EDT
Updated September 8, 2014 7:18 a.m. EDT

— North Carolina officials say they won't release specifics about which law enforcement agencies received military equipment under a controversial federal surplus program.

The state Department of Public Safety last week released a county-level list of tactical equipment obtained under the federal 1033 Excess Property Program, designed to grant surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies across the country, largely for counter-drug and -terrorism activities. The gear includes rifles, riot shotguns and heavy equipment such as helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles. 

The county-by-county information does not specify which agencies actually received this equipment.

DPS spokeswoman Pam Walker this week rejected a WRAL News request for agency-level data, citing an exemption to public records law that prohibits the release of "specific details" of security plans.

"Providing that information would be providing a lot of information to people who would use it to the detriment of our law enforcement professionals and potentially the public," Walker said in an email. "Simply put, it would be like providing criminals a blueprint on how to harm law enforcement or get around their security tactics when trying to prevent crime and/or a serious event."

Walker did not respond to follow-up questions on how details of the voluntary federal program would qualify as "drawings of public buildings," "specific tactics" or "specific security or emergency procedures" defined in the law.

Mike Tadych, a Raleigh attorney who represents media organizations including WRAL News, said he doesn't see how the security exemption would apply in this case.

"Somebody knowing what equipment you got for free from the federal government does not divulge plans on how to respond to terrorist activity," Tadych said.

The 1033 program has drawn fire from critics in the wake of the police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo. For days, officers in the St. Louis suburb donned camouflage and body armor, fired tear gas and aimed rifles at residents who gathered in the streets after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police on Aug. 9.

President Barack Obama ordered a review of the 1033 program two weeks after the incident.

More than half of the states in the U.S. have already released agency-level records on the military equipment to news organizations, according to news site MuckRock.com. Along with North Carolina, several states, including Virginia, Alabama and Michigan, have refused.

Without agency-level data on the $4 billion worth of equipment awarded to law enforcement agencies across the country, it can be hard for outside observers to track.

DPS data through August shows Wake County, for example, received seven helicopters, two grenade launchers and 85 rifles. But that gear may have ended up with any state or local agency with field offices in the county.

Since the 1033 program got its start in the 1990s, the federal government has suspended agencies in several states from participation after weapons and equipment ended up missing, according to an investigation by Fusion News.

North Carolina law enforcement officials say the the 1033 program has saved taxpayers "an enormous amount of money" by providing heavy gear for training and dangerous cases, as well as more general supplies like blankets and lockers.

In her email, Walker referenced several incidents where "public safety professionals were shockingly under-equipped to respond," including shootouts with heavily armed bank robbers in Norco, Calif., in 1980, Miami in 1986 and North Hollywood in 1997.

The latest statistics from the North Carolina Department of Justice show the state's violent crime rate in 2012 was down nearly 21 percent over the last 10 years. The number of assaults on officers is up slightly, from 2,319 in 2003 to 2,381 in 2014.

Explore the state's 1033 data

Data provided by the state as of Aug. 28 shows the number of items distributed to agencies by county only. The information below includes item totals from August 1993 to June 2014.

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