State police departments benefit from military surplus

March 29, 2012 11:49:05 PM PDT
Over the last decade, California police departments have been getting millions of dollars worth of surplus military equipment. That's according to our media partner California Watch, a non-partisan project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. They've been pouring through Department of Defense data to determine just where much of that extra equipment has gone.

The U.S. Military requires a lot of equipment to conduct operations overseas, but when military operations in Iraq wound down last year, local police departments were among the biggest beneficiaries of the troop draw-down. Concord police got a $300,000 armored personnel carrier for free.

"We're going to be using that for our SWAT team," said Concord Police Lt. William Roche.

In the early 1990s Congress passed legislation that allowed excess military equipment to be transferred to local police departments when it is no longer needed. Since 1997, Concord police have received more than $526,000 in military surplus.

"One of the reasons we do it as a police department is because of the budget crisis we've had, and really the economy. It allows us to get goods and materials that we normally wouldn't be able to get, for essentially free," said Roche.

"2011 was a record breaking year in terms of state police agencies participating in the program," said Andrew Becker from California Watch.

Becker examined the federal database to determine where the equipment ended up. He found that more than 17,000 public agencies around the country have received an estimated $2.8 billion in military surplus since the program was created. California received $26.2 million of that last year alone and the Bay Area snapped up nearly $11 million.

"Some of the equipment they've gotten over the years, everything from helicopters to M-16 rifles, leftover toothbrushes, bathmats, camping gear, it's basically you name it," said Becker.

"One person's trash is another person's treasure," said Alameda County Sheriff's Dept Sgt. J.D. Nelson.

Many law enforcement agencies have been accessing the surplus list for years. The Alameda County Sheriff received an 85-foot patrol craft from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2005. They use it to patrol the Port of Oakland and bay. It's worth $4.4 million. They paid just $1 for it.

"When you can get a ship like this for $1, it's a no brainer," said Nelson.

The program is run online.

"What we do is we look at the catalog for the items that are being released, and see if it is something that we can use in our particular agency," said Roche.

Police then request the item from the Department of Defense. If accepted, the equipment is transferred and the civilian police departments take over responsibility for maintenance and storage. Things they later determine they don't need can be sold or turned back over to the federal government.

You can read California Watch's full report or look up what your local department has received here.

Written and Produced By Ken Miguel


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