August 1, 2013
Small-town police departments across the country have been gobbling up tons of equipment discarded by a downsizing military — bicycles, bed sheets, bowling pins, French horns, dog collars, even a colonoscopy machine — regardless of whether the items are needed or will ever be used.
In the tiny farming community of Morven, Ga., the police chief has grabbed three boats, scuba gear, rescue rafts and a couple of dozen life preservers. The town’s deepest body of water: an ankle-deep creek.
An Associated Press investigation of the Defense Department program, originally aimed at helping local law enforcement fight terrorism and drug trafficking, 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.
The national giveaway program operates with scant oversight, and the surplus military gear often sits in storage, the AP found.
Using a series of public records requests, the AP obtained thousands of pages of emails and other documents related to the program locally and nationally. The documents, along with interviews with participants and regulators, reveal that staffing shortages and budget constraints have made it difficult for federal and state program officials to keep track of all of the property and to prevent police forces from obtaining excessive amounts of used military equipment and other Defense Department-transferred property.
Program officials often have to trust recipients to follow the rules and take only what they can utilize; requests for equipment are reviewed, but the process hasn’t stopped many overly aggressive departments from grabbing property that could be better used by other communities with a greater need.
For many, the opportunity to amass a vast array of gear with few strings attached has proven to be too tempting to pass up, leading to a belly-up-to-the-open-bar mentality.
Morven Police Chief Lynwood Yates, for example, has acquired a decontamination machine originally worth $200,000 for his community of about 700 residents, and two additional full-time officers. The high-tech gadget is missing most of its parts and would need $100,000 worth of repairs.
He also received a shipment of bayonets, which have never made it out of storage in his 1.7-square-mile city.
“That was one of those things in the old days you got it because you thought it was cool,” Yates said of his bayonets. “Then, after you get it, you’re like, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this?’ ”
Morven isn’t the only example of a giveaway program gone wild: Before his firing earlier this year for an unrelated matter, the police chief in Rising Star, Texas — the only full-time officer in the town of 835 residents — acquired more than $3.2 million worth of property within 14 months. According to an inventory obtained by the AP, the hundreds of items included nine televisions, 11 computers, three deep-fat fryers, two meat slicers, 22 large space heaters valued at $55,000 when new, a pool table, 25 sleeping bags and playground equipment.
Federal officials suspended Rising Star from the program in March after investigators discovered that many items — including 12 pairs of binoculars — were missing from police department facilities.
“He was getting any kind of equipment he wanted,” Rising Star city attorney Pat Chesser said. “I don’t understand why anyone city would get that amount.”
BIG IDEAS, SMALL RESULTS
Known for its speed trap and annual peach festival, Morven also has been one of the most prolific users of the Defense Department program, getting more than $4 million worth of goods over the past decade.
The spoils have included 20 blankets, 10 two-man combat tents, a hammock, four demagnetizers, two leg curl machines, a shoulder press, a leg press, two treadmills, 20 red gym shorts, 20 fitted bed sheets, 50 flat bed sheets and 355 sandbags.
Yates conceded there isn’t much crime and acknowledged that his officers spend most of their time on traffic enforcement.
“This is probably one of the last quiet small Southern towns left in this area,” he said. “Even my worst drug dealer here, if I was broke down on the side of the road, they would stop and help.”
Still, Yates hasn’t been afraid to think big.
He said he plans to use the boats and scuba gear to form a dive team because the county doesn’t have its own. He says he formed a SWAT team, arming it with surplus military rifles, a Humvee and an armored personnel carrier, before the local sheriff’s office had such a unit. And although the decontamination machine, which collects dust in a grassy area next to the Morven fire station, would be very expensive to fix, Yates said he wanted one in case he has to respond to a “nuclear, chemical, biological” incident.
Yates said 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.” Seeking to avoid “over-policing” the population and giving the appearance of “an occupying army,” the chief said he’s had some of the military equipment painted non-military colors.
While a fleet of donated heavy machinery helped Morven build a firing range, some say it is difficult to see much additional benefit.
Gary Randall, manager of Morven’s only grocery store, said the chief’s stockpiling of equipment seems like “big-time” overkill.
“They’ve got a bunch of damn junk is what it looks like to me,” he said. “This is a little, itty bitty town. His mentality is, ‘If I don’t get it, someone else will.”