Local News

Small police agencies among top recipients of military gear

Posted December 10, 2014 2:16 p.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2014 9:36 a.m. EST

— It's been a few weeks since the staff of the Bethel Police Department moved into its new space on Main Street, and the officers here are still getting settled.

For three years, the 20-person staff made of full-time, part-time and volunteer officers worked out of a single room behind the nearby Bethel Pharmacy.

On Tuesday, gear bags and a box of field glasses were still stacked on the floor. In a hallway, olive-drab bedrolls were lined up next to steel lockers that will soon secure the department's firearms.

Most of what's there, from the chief's desk to several copiers, came straight from military surplus, part of the federal Defense Logistics Agency's so-called 1033 excess property program.

The same program that has drawn criticism for distributing massive mine-resistant vehicles, grenade launchers and Humvees to local law enforcement across the country has also contributed millions of dollars in basic equipment to small agencies across North Carolina.

The Bethel Police Department is a prime example.

Since 2007, federal data show the agency in Pitt County has received about $496,000 worth of equipment from the 1033 program – the eighth-highest among state's more than 300 participants. But accounting for its size, Bethel received more per full-time officer than any other agency in North Carolina.

Most of that came in 2013, when the department acquired at least $350,000 worth of furniture, computers and other equipment to outfit its new headquarters, which the town bought from East Carolina University for $1.

Police Chief Troy Strickland said it was gear they wouldn't have been able to buy with the agency's $400,000 annual budget.

"Basically, our police department wouldn't exist without the program," Strickland said. "We definitely wouldn't be in the building."

Among surplus: mine resistant vehicles, office supplies

The value of everything distributed through the 1033 program, which has operated since 1993, can be hard to calculate.

"General" equipment – items that can vary from tables to measuring tape – drop off the federal inventory after a year in the hands of a law enforcement agency. Gear classified as tactical – weaponry such as riot shotguns and heavy equipment including Humvees and helicopters – remain the property of the Department of Defense. Police agencies must maintain this gear and may return it at any time.

But federal data as of Nov. 14 provides at least a snapshot of the surplus equipment distributed to hundreds of agencies across the state over the years.

Three departments, the Roanoke Rapids Police Department and sheriff's offices in Cherokee and Currituck counties, have each received more than $1 million in gear dating to 2006. Among those acquisitions:

  • Eight assault rifles, three Humvees and a mine-resistant vehicle for Roanoke Rapids
  • Two helicopters, two Humvees, a mine-resistant vehicle and 12 riot shotguns for the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department
  • A mine-resistant vehicle, eight Humvees and two bomb disposal robots for the Currituck County Sheriff's Department

None of the three departments responded to requests for comment.

Relative to the size of their staffs, several smaller law enforcement agencies topped the list of the equipment received per full-time officer.

In Bethel, a town of about 1,600 north of Greenville, the police department received about $100,000 worth of equipment for each of its five full-time sworn officers. That includes three assault rifles, as well as 10 laptop computers that full- and part-time officers receive when they're on patrol or in the office. Strickland said two of the department's five patrol vehicles, along with an ATV, a golf cart and a box truck now used to respond to crime scenes, also came from military surplus.

"This is equipment that is necessary for us to be able to do our jobs," Strickland said. "We would basically be working with one or two patrol vehicles 24/7 if it weren't for this program."

The department's two Humvees are stored at the public works department under a shelter and maintained by the agency's volunteer officers. Strickland said officers have used them in the wake of snowstorms and other serious weather.

Other small agencies, such as Maysville, Bridgeton and Rich Square police departments, also top the list of acquisitions per sworn officer.

Cherokee County and Roanoke Rapids rank No. 3 and No. 6 respectively in equipment per sworn officer.

Amid criticism, feds release new data

Until mid-November, it was impossible to see exactly which agencies across the country received tactical equipment such as weapons and vehicles under the 1033 program. Unlike 38 other states, North Carolina Department of Public Safety officials refused to release agency-level information on the grounds that it would put officers at risk.

"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," DPS Communications Director Pam Walker said in an email in September.

Michelle McCaskill, chief of media relations for the federal Defense Logistics Agency, said that, until recently, the department left it up to the states to decide what to release. But with the majority of the states already providing detailed information on what agencies received, the department notified all state coordinators that DLA would do the same on its own website.

Walker said state public safety officials stand by their position that providing the data "creates a significant security concern for the recipient law enforcement agency."

"Without concurrence from all law enforcement, the department did not feel it was our decision to provide the tactical list," Walker said.

For months, coverage and criticism of the federal program has been mounting across the country in the wake of the police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo. Days after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police on Aug. 9, officers in the St. Louis suburb donned camouflage and body armor, fired tear gas and aimed rifles at residents who gathered in the street to voice opposition to the shooting.

Critics like Mike Meno, communications director with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, worry the infusion of combat equipment and weaponry contributes to more militarized police forces that damage relationships with the communities they protect.

"As we've seen in Ferguson and other places across the country, this creates an 'us vs. them' mentality," Meno said. "We're not saying this is the case in every jurisdiction and municipality, but it's something that's been a distinct trend across the country."

The outcry prompted President Barack Obama to order a review of the 1033 program in August, just weeks after the Ferguson protests. Released in early December, the report found "a lack of consistency" in the federal program's implementation and recommended better tracking, review and training for officers who receive equipment.

Chief: Policing is changing

Although the specifics of those changes are still unclear, Strickland said he's not opposed to additional transparency for the 1033 program.

"I think everyone needs to evaluate what they’re getting," Strickland said. "If you’re not doing anything wrong, then scrutiny is not always bad."

He said everything he's received from the military has been legitimate, and it's helped the department survive and keep policing.

"This has given us the crutch we needed to stabilize and start growing on our own," Strickland said. "I don’t think the program is meant to be sustaining for an agency, but it is meant to supplement, which is what it’s doing for us."

Although he disagrees with the notion that police departments are becoming more militarized, Strickland said officers are facing things they've never dealt with before.

"You have to look at the weapons the people we deal with have access to now," he said. "If we go up against somebody with an assault rifle and we don't have anything to defend ourselves with – you don't fight someone with an assault rifle with a handgun."

Yet, statistics from the North Carolina Department of Justice show the state's violent crime rate fell about 26 percent in the 10-year period from 2004 to 2013.

The number of assaults on police is down slightly, from 2,423 in 2004 to 2,343 in 2013. But when accounting for the growth of officers in the state over that time, assaults on police have dropped by about 24 percent.

Strickland said there are more requirements than ever before for officers on the beat. For the most part, he said, those requirements mean better policing, especially in the case of additional training for officers.

Although he said there can always be improvements, he'll be glad to see the military surplus program continue.

"This program is not the monster it’s made out to be," he said.

Explore the data

Search the data below to see which agencies received the most equipment through the federal 1033 excess property program, according to data from the Defense Logistics Agency. The number of full-time sworn officers as of 2013 was obtained from N.C. Department of Justice crime statistics.

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