Military Surplus a Bonanza for Law Enforcement
March 31, 2012
G.W. Schulz andAndrew Becker / California Watch & San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco may be known for antiwar movements and peace rallies, but when local law enforcement agencies needed help with supplies, they've turned to the US military. Over the past two decades, San Francisco authorities have acquired $1.4 million in military equipment and weapons -- including infrared devices, combat helmets, chemical protective gloves, vehicles and even a boat -- as discarded hand-me-downs free of charge from the Department of Defense.
SAN FRANCISCO (March 31, 2012) -- San Francisco may be known for antiwar movements and peace rallies, but when local law enforcement agencies needed help with supplies, they've turned to the US military.
Over the past two decades, San Francisco authorities have acquired infrared devices, combat helmets, chemical protective gloves, vehicles and even a boat as discarded hand-me-downs free of charge from the Department of Defense.
In total, the San Francisco police and sheriff's departments have taken $1.4 million in equipment, from a $20 pair of evidence boxes to "climber's equipment" worth $325,000 in 1996.
Several other government agencies in California also have tapped the vast supply of free military surplus goods, equipping themselves with assault-style weapons and even tanks, first as part of the war on drugs and later in the name of fighting terrorism.
The agencies and their employees accumulated more equipment during 2011 than any other year in the program's two-decade history, according to a California Watch analysis of US 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 nation -- including police, sheriff and 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 got "combat coats," pistol holsters and canteens.
The Alameda County Sheriff's Department, which in years past picked up a $4.4 million, 85-foot patrol boat as well as a grenade launcher, in 2011 asked for four rifles and more than 200 pillowcases, along with tools, a $200 medical treatment table and other equipment.
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.
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 -- 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.
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.
On New Year's Eve 1984, Kenneth Mohar, a 39-year-old with a history of alcohol abuse, stood in the doorway of his Concord home, pointing a hunting rifle at his roommate's head. After an argument, Mohar shot and killed the roommate 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.
Nearly three decades later, Concord police no longer need to borrow armored trucks. In November, the military's excess equipment program enabled the city to obtain its own 8 1/2-ton bulletproof tactical vehicle, among other discarded equipment.
"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."
Much of the gear sought last year across California had nothing to do with firearms or bulletproof vehicles and served more everyday needs -- 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, including four helicopters that account for much of that money.
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.
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 example, last year picked up a full-tracked tank, even though it had a sophisticated, $532,000 mobile-command vehicle that it 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 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."
Look up free military surplus equipment in your community at links.sfgate.com/ZLIS.
California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team, is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. www.californiawatch.org. email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
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