(Image credit: verifex/Flickr)
While the trend of police forces becoming increasingly militarized across the United States, thanks in large part to programs like the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, is pretty much common knowledge at this point, it actually goes much further than most realize.
Indeed, as a new detailed Associated Press report shows, it is not only Georgia – which acquired a whopping $200 million worth of military-grade weapons and vehicles – where rural areas are getting equipment they clearly don’t need.
The AP investigation found that a “disproportionate share of the $4.2 billion worth of property distributed since 1990 has been obtained by police departments and sheriff’s offices in rural areas with few officers and little crime.”
Some of the equipment is quite obviously not needed and will not be used by the departments. One of the examples is, oddly enough, from Georgia, where the police department in the tinyfarming community of Morven, Georgia has acquired “three boats, scuba gear, rescue rafts and a couple of dozen life preservers.”
Now, you might be thinking that this is justified, because they’re probably located near a large body of water. In reality, the 1.7-square-mile, 700-resident town’s deepest body of water is an ankle-deep creek.
Morven Police Chief Lynwood Yates didn’t stop there. He also acquired a decontaminationmachine originally valued at $200,000, though it is missing most of its parts and would require $100,000 worth of repairs.
Yates also acquired an unknown number of bayonets which have yet to make it out of his storage facility.
“That was one of those things in the old days you got it because you thought it was cool,” Yates said, referring to his shipment of bayonets. “Then, after you get it, you’re like, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this?’”
I’m sure many readers are asking the same question.
Morven has clearly enjoyed the benefits of the Department of Defense program, acquiring some $4 million worth of goods over the past ten years or so. Yet Yates acknowledged that his town sees little crime and that the police spend most of their time on traffic enforcement.
In the small town of Rising Star, Texas, population 835, the police chief acquired over $3.2 million worth of goods with a mere 14 months. The only full-time officer on the entire force was the police chief.
Some of the equipment the police chief go this hands on before being fired over an unrelated issue earlier this year included three deep-fat fryers, two meat slicers, a pool table, playground equipment, nine televisions, 11 computers, 25 sleeping bags and 22 large space heaters worth $55,000 when new.
Rising Star was suspended from the program in March after federal officials unsurprisingly discovered that many items, including 12 pairs of binoculars, had gone missing from police facilities.
Why this program is distributing deep-fat fryers, meat slicers, pool tables and playground equipment is still not clear.
Other “general property items” that agencies can acquire include, “bookcases, hedge trimmers, telescopes, brassieres, golf carts [and] coffee makers.”
In the case of Morven, Yates clearly has a lot of imagination. Despite the fact that the town, by his own admission, sees little in terms of crime, Yates said he plans to use the aquatic equipment to form a dive team.
Yates claims that the dive team is needed because his county doesn’t have one.
Major Joe Wheeler, of the Brooks County Sherriff’s Department, said that they don’t need a dive team and if they did, they’d create one. Instead, they just call the adjacent Lowndes County for water rescues and the George Department of Natural Resources if a corpse needs to be retrieved from a body of water.
He also said he has formed a SWAT team armed with surplus military rifles, an armored personnel carrier and a Humvee.
He added that he wants the decontamination machine, despite the costs associated with fixing it, in case he has to respond to a “nuclear, chemical, biological” incident.
Yates said that he could “take my guys and the training they have, the equipment we have, and we could shut this town down” and “completely control everything.”
Why he would want to do that, especially when he admits, “Even my worst drug dealer here, if I was broke down on the side of the road, they would stop and help,” is unclear.
“They’ve got a bunch of damn junk is what it looks like to me,” said Gary Randall, manager of the only grocery store in Morven.
“This is a little, itty bitty town. His mentality is, ‘If I don’t get it, someone else will,’” Randall said, adding that the stockpiling seems like “big-time” overkill.
Still, Yates claims that he only requests equipment he needs, though he acknowledges that the bayonets may not have been all that necessary.
The equipment received isn’t necessarily what is requested in some cases.
Yates asked for a handheld laser range finder for a gun, instead, he received a range finder that used to be mounted on the tank-busting A-10 Warthog jet worth some $28,000.
The most troubling part of their investigation is that the use of the 1033 Program is increasing like never before.
A record $546 million worth of military property was transferred to agencies in fiscal year 2012 alone.
While agencies who receive the equipment aren’t supposed to sell or lease the equipment without permission or stockpile it, some agencies have been busted for doing just that.
Some have been found to be selling property for a profit, failing to notify officials about stolen or lost weapons or transferring weapons without permission.
The problem was apparently o serious that the Defense Logistics Agency’s “Law Enforcement Support Office suspended the transfer of firearms to police forces more than a year ago because of concerns that state coordinators weren’t keeping adequate inventory records,” according to the AP.
Critics say it’s also creating a much larger problem.
“The harm for me is that it further militarizes American law enforcement,” said Norm Stamper, a retired Seattle police chief.
“We make a serious mistake, I’m convinced, in equipping domestic law enforcement, particularly in smaller, rural communities, with this much military equipment,” Stamper said.
While Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek, the director of the Defense Logistics Agency, claimed that his agency’s support office and state coordinators conduct a “sanity check” on requests, there are some clearly insane requests.
The Oxford, Alabama police department, for example, has received over $10.4 million worth of equipment, including an infrared surveillance system worth $1.5 million for a helicopter it doesn’t even own.
The police chief said they tried to get night-vision goggles for their SWAT team, but instead received the $1.5 million surveillance apparatus it can’t use.
The oversight of the program is, by all metrics, atrocious.
While the Department of Defense is required to conduct reviews of state programs every two years, Mississippi’s program went six years without being reviewed.
In March 2012, federal reviewers found that the Mississippi Office of Surplus Property, which coordinates the state’s use of the 1033 Program, acquired over $8 million in property. The problem is that the agency is not a law enforcement organization and is thus should not be participating in the program.
However, the AP reports that staffing at the federal office tasked with direct supervision of the program has increased by 50 percent to 18 employees. They also now have a new computer system aimed at improving the tracking of inventory.
A spokeswoman for the office also said that they have new rules which “limit distribution of most items to one per law enforcement officer, except for consumables like clothing and batteries.”
One can only hope that the new efforts will stop towns like Rising Star and Morven from going hog-wild with the program.
Still, the problem of federal grant money funding similar programs will remain.
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