MORVEN, Georgia (AP) — Small-town police departments across the U.S. have been accepting tons of equipment discarded by a downsizing military — regardless of whether the items are needed or will ever be used.
In the tiny farming community of Morven, Georgia, the police chief has taken three boats, scuba gear, rescue rafts and a couple of dozen life preservers. The town’s deepest body of water is a creek that’s ankle-deep.
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 other law enforcement offices in rural areas with few officers and little crime.
The national giveaway program operates with scant oversight, 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 of participants and regulators, reveal that staffing shortages and budget constraints have made it difficult for officials to keep track of all of the property and to prevent police forces from obtaining excessive amounts of used military equipment.
Morven Police Chief Lynwood Yates, for example, has acquired a decontamination machine originally worth $200,000 for his community of about 700 residents. The high-tech gadget would need $100,000 worth of repairs.
He also received a shipment of bayonets, which have never made it out of storage.
“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, two meat slicers, 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 were missing from police department facilities.
The military equipment transfer program has grown drastically in recent years, due in large part to the scaling down of the military from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fiscal year 2012, a record $546 million worth of property was transferred.
None of the gifted property can be sold or leased without permission, or stockpiled. Personal use is barred.
But the weapons program had serious problems.
A sheriff in Bureau County, Illinois, was accused of lending government-issued M-14 rifles to unauthorized friends. The firearms manager for the program in North Carolina pleaded guilty in April to stealing M-14 and M-16 assault rifles and other weapons, selling some on eBay for more than $30,000.
Critics fear the giveaways are helping to transform many local police departments into paramilitary forces.
“The harm for me is that it further militarizes American law enforcement,” said Norm Stamper, a retired Seattle police chief who is now a spokesman for a nonprofit group that supports legalizing and regulating illicit drugs.
The transfer of firearms to police forces was suspended more than a year ago because of concerns that state coordinators weren’t keeping adequate inventory records.
Communities can still obtain other types of tactical equipment, such as aircraft, boats, Humvees, body armor, weapon scopes, infrared imaging systems and night-vision goggles.
Morven 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.
Yates conceded there isn’t much crime and acknowledged that his officers spend most of their time on traffic enforcement.
Still, Yates hasn’t been afraid to think big. He says he formed a special police team, arming it with surplus military rifles, a Humvee and an armored personnel carrier.
Gary Randall, manager of Morven’s only grocery store, said, “They’ve got a bunch of damn junk, is what it looks like to me.”
Inadequate oversight has been a major shortcoming of the program. Many state program coordinators say they have the staff and funding to conduct only a handful of on-site inspections annually — if at all.
The Defense Department is required to conduct program compliance reviews of each state program every two years, but many states have often gone much longer without one.
Suspension of the firearms distribution is expected to be lifted in October. In the meantime, staffing at the federal office with direct supervision has increased 50 percent, to 18 employees. A new computer system has been installed to improve inventory tracking. And a spokeswoman said new rules limit distribution of most items to one per law enforcement officer, except for consumables like clothing and batteries.
Associated Press writers Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Mississippi, and Mitch Weiss, in Charlotte, North Carolina, also contributed to this report.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org