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New Jersey law-enforcement agencies, most of them local, have received more than $51 million in surplus military equipment, ranging from first-aid kits to assault rifles to helicopters, for little cost over the past 20 years through a federal program that has come under increasing scrutiny.
Anreleased by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency shows that 164 police and sheriff's departments and other law-enforcement agencies received about 5,500 shipments of equipment from 1995 through the end of 2014 under the Law Enforcement Support Office's 1033 Program. That includes nearly 47,000 separate items -- each individual bandage, for instance, counts as one item.
To police, the program is one that has allowed them to obtain equipment they otherwise probably couldn't afford, since their only cost is shipping. Nationally, a federal review of the program issued last December found only 4 percent of property transferred to local law enforcement was considered "controlled property" -- small arms, night vision devices, tactical vehicles, and aircraft. New Jersey departments have been able to get life preservers, flashlights, cold-weather gear, computer equipment, and handcuffs. Several shore departments were able to replace vehicles damaged by superstorm Sandy and get generators and other gear that can help them respond when the next storm hits.
“There has been a puzzling negative response to this, when the vast majority of the equipment has been a huge boon to local governments,” said Capt. Stephen Jones, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, whose Office of Emergency Management oversees the program. “Shore communities and others across the state have been receiving large water pumps, generators, lighting systems, emergency supplies, all sorts of things, including vehicles, these communities could not otherwise afford,” he added.
To several legislators, though, it has enabled some departments to amass war chests that community police don't need. “While some of the equipment may be useful to these agencies, a number of these items appear more suited for war rather than for use in our communities,” said Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex and Passaic) and cosponsor of bills (/A3901 and /A3754) to require greater accountability for the items by both local and state officials. “We must ensure the equipment obtained through this program is appropriate for use by local departments,” she said.
One bill would require local governing bodies to approve all applications to the program and all property-acquisition requests. The second would require the state attorney general's office to review all applications for equipment and approval would be granted on the condition that there is local need, whether special training is required, and the ability to store and maintain the equipment. Under the legislation, state and county law-enforcement officials would review the program to determine if it should be revised and the attorney general would have to issue an annual report on it.
President Obamalast month establishing a similar review at the federal level to recommend any program changes. That followed a that said allowing local law enforcement to reuse equipment has been valuable, but "significantly improved coordination and oversight" were needed to improve the program.
"When police lack adequate training, make poor operational choices, or improperly use equipment, these programs can facilitate excessive uses of force and serve as a highly visible barrier between police and the communities they secure," the report stated. "When officers misuse equipment, the partnership, problem-solving and crime prevention collaboration with citizens that is at the heart of effective policing can be eroded."
The program came under increased scrutiny last summer following the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, when police responding to protests of the shooting appeared outfitted more like the military than local officers.
“The images of police officers using military equipment in response to protests in Ferguson have raised serious concerns about the use of weapons meant for the battlefield in our communities,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), a former police officer and another sponsor of the measures. “If this equipment is going to be used in local policing work, then the local government bodies should have a say ... This provides another set of eyes to ensure that any request by a police department for high-grade weapons and equipment is actually needed and used responsibly.”
According to the DLA data, more than half of the shipments of equipment to New Jersey law enforcement occurred last year: more than 35,000 items valued at $38.4 million when purchased by the military.
The most common items obtained: 3,078 yards of textile webbing, 2,443 ammunition chests, and 1,096 flashlights. The sixth most-received item was a 5.56 millimeter rifle, a tactical assault weapon -- departments got 938 of these, valued at more than $570,000. They also got 365 7.62 millimeter rifles and 826 magazine cartridges for weapons.
The most valuable equipment were vehicles: 525 trucks, tractors, and special-purpose vehicles that cost the military more than $34.4 million, or an average of nearly $66,000 apiece.
Congress began allowing the Department of Defense to give surplus property to local law-enforcement agencies in the mid-1990s, with preference given to requests for equipment used to combat drugs and terrorism, according to the DLA. More than 8,000 law-enforcement agencies participate.