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Free military surplus gear a boon to local Calif. law enforcement

Courtesy of the LA County Sheriff’s DepartmentLos Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bob Watkins shows one of five H-3 helicopters transferred from the military. It’s now used for search and rescue and SWAT transport.

Among its fleet of helicopters, patrol cars, inmate buses and other vehicles, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department keeps four long-haul semitrailers ready to go at a moment’s notice. 

Their purpose: Travel the country retrieving discarded – and free of charge – U.S. military hand-me-downs for its deputies to use in California.

M16 rifles, helicopters, microwaves, survival kits, workout equipment, bayonet knives, ammunition cans and more – the LA sheriff’s office snaps up an average of $4 million to $5 million in surplus military equipment annually.

“You name it,” said Sgt. Bob Watkins, whose unit of four deputies checks an online database every Saturday for newly available items. “Anything the military uses on a daily basis, from toilet paper to heavy equipment and everything in between – if we can use it and we can get it from them for free, it comes through our program, and our department doesn’t have to go out and buy it.”

Los Angeles County is far from alone in tapping a vast supply of free military surplus to arm and equip its officers. Public agencies and employees as diverse as Oakland school police have grabbed cast-off military goods that become available on a weekly basis.

The Department of Defense’s equipment bazaar is another sign of how aggressively some police departments increasingly resemble small armies. Civilian law enforcement have equipped themselves with assault-style weapons and even tanks, first as part of the war on drugs and later in the name of fighting terrorism. 

California police accumulated more equipment during 2011 than any other year in the equipment-transfer program’s two-decade history, according to a California Watch analysis of U.S. Department of Defense data. 

A total of 163,344 new and used items valued at $26.2 million – from bath mats acquired by the sheriff of Sonoma County to a full-tracked tank for rural San Joaquin County – were transferred last year to state and local agencies.

Police nationwide sought $498 million worth of equipment, including 60 aircraft and thousands more weapons than in 2010. Listed dollar amounts are based on what the military initially paid for the equipment. 

More than 17,000 public agencies across the country – mostly police and sheriff, but some fire departments – have taken advantage of the equipment giveaway of an estimated $2.8 billion since Congress enacted laws in the 1990s that created the program. 

For the sheriff of Orange County, it was hundreds of flashlights, exercise equipment, four trumpets and gun parts. The Vacaville Police Department in Solano County got “combat coats,” pistol holsters and water canteens. Thirty-four M16s were made available to the Elk Grove Police Department in Sacramento County last year. 

The program is run online and open to law enforcement and other public agencies that sign up with the Department of Defense. Once the goods are transferred, the civilian police departments are responsible for maintenance and storage.

In Rio Dell – a small Humboldt County town with just four full-time officers, not including the chief – the police department has used the program to pick up two vehicles, two M-16 rifles, and last year, two radios and laptops.

The vehicles arrived in good shape. The department had mixed results, however, with last year’s electronics equipment, said Police Chief Graham Hill. One radio was in poor condition and a laptop was obsolete. 

Hill said he shops cautiously so the department doesn’t end up with “a whole parking lot full of stuff to insure, maintain and fuel.”

“It’s not eBay,” Hill said. “The challenge is going to get it and whether it’s going to be worth it.”

Police are allowed to sell or transfer the military surplus after a year. But weapons and anything else with “offensive military capability” can’t be sold off – the equipment technically belongs to the Department of Defense and is considered on permanent loan to the civilian police agencies.

The program has ballooned despite congressional largesse that since 2002 has resulted in billions of dollars worth of homeland security grants – including $3.8 billion for California alone – set aside for disaster preparation and counterterrorism.

Erroll Southers, a former top state homeland security official, said the combat-ready equipment can look intimidating to the public, but it enhances safety during critical, high-stress calls.

“I don’t know how it could not look threatening, but that’s not the intent,” said Southers, now an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. “God forbid we have an officer hurt or killed when we had that kind of equipment available and we decided not to use it because it didn’t look politically correct.”

Officials attribute the recent surge in demand to better promotion and outreach, an influx of equipment with the war in Iraq winding down, and money woes that have left police across the state scrambling to fill their needs.

“State and local budgets are rapidly diminishing and dwindling, so they’re getting pretty creative about looking for alternative sources of equipment,” said Twila Gonzales of the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees military transfers to police. “(Our) program certainly helps in that regard.”

Borrowing no longer needed

Shortly before noon on New Year’s Eve 1984, Kenneth Mohar, a 39-year-old with a history of alcohol abuse, stood angry in the doorway of his Concord home, pointing a hunting rifle at his new roommate’s head. Following an argument, Mohar shot the 27-year-old, killing him instantly in the driveway.

When local police arrived, they feared Mohar wasn’t finished. So they dialed up the nearby Concord Naval Weapons Station to ask if they could borrow something: a Peacekeeper armored personnel carrier.

Ken Miguel/KGO-TV San FranciscoThe Concord Police Department’s Mamba tactical truck, worth an estimated $380,000, was transferred from the military last year.

Nearly three decades later, Concord police no longer need to borrow armored trucks from the weapons station. In November, the military’s excess equipment program enabled the city to obtain its own 8½-ton bulletproof tactical vehicle, among other discarded equipment. A new paint job is in progress, and the truck awaits deployment.

“Without the surplus program, these are probably items that we as an agency couldn’t afford,” said Concord police Lt. Bill Roche. “It provides us with an ability to remain competitive with the criminal community.”

During earlier years, requests were small and limited mostly to helmets, binoculars and other items. Much of the gear sought last year across California had nothing to do with firearms or bulletproof vehicles and served more of an everyday need – things like treadmills, parkas, computers, tweezers, cameras and office supplies. 

But some agencies have used the program to get big-ticket items that might otherwise be no more than a fantasy under today’s budget belt-tightening.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has taken in more than $13.8 million worth of surplus equipment since the late 1990s. Four helicopters account for much of that money, while other items include wrenches and undershirts, combat boots and garbage cans, pry bars and riot-control face shields, body armor and self-inflating sleeping mats.

Spokesman Drew Sugars said the aircraft help deputies reach lost or stranded hikers in isolated areas of the county that include parts of the Los Padres National Forest.

Influenced by massacres like the 2007 Virginia Tech attack, even colleges and universities have used the program. At El Camino College in Torrance, campus police received $414,525 worth of equipment, such as tactical apparel, riot shields and a $23,000 remote-controlled ordnance disposal robot, records show. Police at the Los Angeles Unified School District have scooped up free M16 cartridge magazines and special sights for firearms. 

Considering war-ready appearances

Police are aware of the potential for negative public perception and the appearance of officers being ready for war rather than curbing crime.

Burbank police spokesman Lt. John Dilibert said civilian law enforcement and the military have distinctly different missions. Combat troops “cover” one another with a spray of bullets, but police are responsible for defusing situations with as little violence as possible. 

His department during the 1990s received a Peacekeeper armored vehicle from the program and, more recently, purchased with homeland security funds a $275,000 SWAT truck, he said. 

Dilibert outlined one scenario where the truck would be useful: As a barrier between a gunman and someone who needed to be rescued. “It’s not so much going after the bad guy as much as it’s an armored rescue vehicle,” he said.

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The LA County Sheriff’s Department won’t take some items because they have too much of a militaristic look. That includes Humvees and armored personnel carriers. Any equipment that has a green, combat-ready appearance is repainted. 

The force did at one time have armored trucks that came from the military, but they weren’t suited for Los Angeles and its tangled web of freeways, Watkins said. Full-blown tanks would be out of the question, too. 

Other departments can’t resist free machinery that most people would have difficulty imagining on America’s streets, even if it might not fit their image or needs. 

The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, last year picked up a full-tracked tank, even though it already had a sophisticated $532,000 mobile-command vehicle bought with federal grant money. A spokesman said the county has since gotten rid of the tank because it didn’t meet the agency’s “mission needs.”

Demand for surplus equipment in the meantime doesn’t appear to be slowing.

“There’s a lot of competition for it,” said Sgt. Jon Zwolinski, who leads the effort to track down excess property for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. “The longer you delay in ordering it, the more likely the chances someone else is going to get it. So you just have to be quick on the draw.” 

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Filed under: Public Safety


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