War on Crime Will Proceed Without Military Weapons . . . for Now

Thursday, July 05, 2012


The Pentagon is temporarily suspending part of a popular program that allows police departments to buy military weapons after news reports of million-dollar California buying sprees that included a tank. The military wants to conduct an inventory of where the material went and what happened to it once it got there.

California wasn’t the only bargain hunter as thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country have snapped up $2.6 billion in surplus guns, Humvees and aircraft as well as more mundane equipment and supplies like computers, air conditioners and toilet paper.

“Leadership decided to make sure we have a good, full accounting for all of this,’’ Department of Defense spokesman Kenneth MacNevin said. “We’re not doing this based on any thought there’s a problem. We’re doing it because accountability is accountability.’’ The program will continue to allow the purchase of military equipment other than weapons until an inventory is completed.

Last year was the most bountiful for California police departments in the two-decade history of the Pentagon program, according to information compiled by California Watch from military records. A total of 163,344 items worth $26.2 million were purchased by state and local agencies. The military sold $500 million worth of material nationwide in 2011, more than double from the year before.

Orange County picked up hundreds of flashlights, four trumpets and exercise equipment last year. The Elk Grove Police Department in Sacramento County snapped up 34 M16s. 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, combat boots, garbage cans, riot-control face shields, body armor and self-inflating sleeping mats. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department annually buys $4 million to $5 million in gear and sends four long-haul semi trailers to crisscross the country scooping it up. 

The agencies can sell everything after a year except for weapons and anything with “offensive military capability,” which technically are on permanent loan from the Defense Department. That has led to some cash-strapped departments looking to turn a quick profit although the program stipulates that purchases from the military should not be made with the expressed purpose of raising money.

At least in Arizona, that rule hasn’t always been observed. Retired Arizona Department of Public Safety officer Norman Jones, noting an Arizona Republic story that Pinal County was preparing to sell some of its $7 million stash to help cover a budget shortfall, said, “They hoard stuff. They’ve opened a little swap meet.”    

It’s hard to say how long the freeze will last. The Associated Press noted that very few states it contacted kept digitized files and that the paper records seemed to make an audit problematic.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Feds Want Inventory of Free Military Equipment Given to Police (by G.W. Schultz, California Watch)

Free Military Surplus Gear a Boon to Local Calif. Law Enforcement (by G.W. Schultz and Andrew Becker, California Watch)

Pentagon Halts Free Guns for Police (by Holbrook Mohr and Michael Kunzelman, Associated Press)

Pinal Sheriff's Office Stockpiles, Prepares to Sell Military Equipment (by Dennis Wagner, Arizona Republic)

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