Cash-strapped law enforcement agencies are getting free weapons and equipment from the Defense Department.
Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Ryan Carroll spends several hours a week scrolling through a database of U.S. military equipment, looking for gear that the patrol could use -- and that it can get at little expense.
So far this year, the patrol has paid next to nothing for $630,000 worth of night vision goggles, infrared cameras, radios and other items. The Coon Rapids Police Department acquired 60 M-16 rifles from the database, several months after the Anoka County Sheriff's Office obtained 70 of the weapons.
The three law enforcement agencies are among thousands across the country getting free military equipment in record-setting numbers through a Defense Department program that makes retired or surplus items available to them. Acquisitions have soared in recent years, propelled by tight local budgets, greater awareness of the program and an increase in equipment as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.
Nationally, the value of goods obtained by cash-strapped local agencies jumped from $213 million in 2010 to nearly $500 million in 2011, and, at $419 million so far this year, it's on pace to easily surpass that total. In Minnesota, police, sheriff's offices and the State Patrol have acquired $1 million-plus worth of items this year, more than twice the total for the previous two years combined.
"This program gives us the ability to use military technology that we would not be able to afford otherwise," Carroll said, "All the items we acquire are placed into service immediately."
Too much firepower?
Hundreds of thousands of items -- from rifles to office supplies, clothing to aircraft -- are available through the Law Enforcement Support Office, which has existed since 1997. Requests are reviewed by its offices at the state level. In Minnesota, it's part of the Department of Public Safety, which says about 405 Minnesota law enforcement agencies are registered for the program. It began automated tracking of the transactions in December 2011.
While law enforcement sees a chance to get equipment for bargain costs (they have to pay for shipping), the increasing use of the program has drawn criticism. Skeptics ask why police need military-grade weapons and worry about the image that these weapons convey.
"I have yet to see a justification for this amount of firepower, other than we can get it for free," said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
But Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said some circumstances do call for this kind of weaponry. He said more departments have gone in this direction since events such as a Hollywood shootout in 1997, when Los Angeles police officers were heavily outgunned by two bank robbers who were eventually killed.
"The justifying factor is that there are some situations where it is safer for an officer to remain at a distance, assuming that it's a situation where deadly force should be used," he said.
The savings add up
The Coon Rapids Police Department applied for the M-16 rifles after learning about the Sheriff's Office acquisition in February. The department paid $2,700 to ship its 60 weapons, which were made in 1975 and 1981 but have never been used and had an original price of nearly $30,000.
"We get these at no cost, buy the parts to make them squad-ready and we are still coming out [below the cost of] buying a new gun," said Capt. Paul Ireland.
Twenty-three of the rifles are being converted from automatic to semi-automatic weapons for non-military use at a cost of $19,475 -- about $800 per rifle. They will be placed in each of the department's squad cars. The other rifles will be used for parts and training for the 63-member force.
The M-16s will take the place of 24 M-5 rifles, which were bought new 16 years ago and are from a line that has been discontinued, making parts hard to come by, Ireland said. The department hopes to offset some of the M-16 conversion cost by selling the current stock.
Coon Rapids police said the M-16s are not intended for everyday use. Pistols and shotguns will remain the department's standard patrol weapons, Ireland said.
The program started as a support for federal and state agencies for use in counter-drug activities and was later extended to include counter-terrorism and law enforcement activities under the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, according to the Department of Defense. Now, it has more than 11,500 local federal and state members across all 50 states and three U.S. territories.
In Janesville, Minn., a city of just more than 2,000 in Waseca County, a military Humvee is used as a patrol car when blizzard conditions make roads inaccessible.
In Duluth, a mobile decontamination unit designed for use in chemical warfare became a community shower after this year's flooding left people without potable water. And in Wisconsin, night-vision goggles were used in the search for a missing boy.
In the past year, almost all of the requests by agencies statewide have been fulfilled, including a $65,000 armored truck ordered by the Chisago County Sheriff's Office on June 27.
Professor Joseph Daly, who has done research on the issue and runs a human rights clinic at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, said he sees a danger in distributing equipment designed for war to small-town police forces. Doing so, he said, will change the mindset of police officers and citizens.
"It is designed to unleash maximum violence and I don't see that as the role of a police officer," he said.
Joe Kelly, state coordinator for the Law Enforcement Support Office program, said he trusts that law enforcement supervisors are putting the equipment to good -- and appropriate -- use.
"They are ultimately accountable to the citizens in their cities and their counties; our job is to provide the equipment," he said.
Kristian Hernandez • 612-673-4217