Pentagon halts free guns for police, orders audit
$2.6B program • Officials say states fail to account for all the surplus weapons and equipment.
Published: June 8, 2012 11:49AM
Updated: January 18, 2014 04:36PM
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In this May 2, 2012 photo, law enforcement and other officials tour a warehouse at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state during an information session for a program that distributes surplus military equipment to state law-enforcement agencies. The Pentagon is putting the brakes on the $2.6 billion program until state coordinators can account for all the guns, aircraft, Humvees and armored personnel carriers police have already received. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Defense Department has stopped issuing weapons to thousands of law enforcement agencies until it is satisfied that state officials can account for all the surplus guns, aircraft, Humvees and armored personnel carriers it has given police under a $2.6 billion program, The Associated Press has learned.

The department’s Defense Logistics Agency ordered state-appointed coordinators in 49 states to certify the whereabouts of that equipment that has already been distributed through the long-running arrangement overseen by the agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office. The temporary halt on transferring weapons applies to all states, agency officials said Thursday.

The program provides police departments and other law enforcement agencies with military equipment ranging from guns and helicopters to computers and air conditioners and even toilet paper. The equipment is cheap or free for law enforcement agencies to acquire, but much of it comes with strict rules that prohibit it from being sold and dictate how it must be tracked.

The military decided to conduct a “one-time, clean sweep” of all state inventories instead of reviewing them piecemeal, said Kenneth MacNevin, a spokesman for the federal agency. While some gear, including guns, has been stolen or otherwise gone missing over the years, MacNevin said the reporting requirements themselves aren’t new and that the review wasn’t prompted by anything specific.

“Leadership decided to make sure we have a good, full accounting for all of this,” he said. “We’re not doing this based on any thought there’s a problem. We’re doing it because accountability is accountability.”

However, MacNevin said a pair of news media reports and a weekslong series of AP requests for records were factors in the decision to send letters to the states late last month ordering them to comply with program rules or face suspension from it. Only New Hampshire didn’t get a letter; State Police Major Russ Conte, the state’s liaison for the surplus program, said his office already had completed a full accounting of the equipment it has received.

The Arizona Republic reported last month that the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office has stockpiled millions of dollars’ worth of equipment through the program, distributing some of the gear to non-police agencies, and intended to sell other property, which would violate the program’s rules.

“I don’t have any info on if something triggered” the Defense Department’s recent order, Matt Van Camp, a police detective in Payson, Ariz., who coordinates that state’s program, told the AP in an email. “All I know is Arizona is 100 percent compliant on weapons inventory.”

A report in March by California Watch, which was founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting, found that California police accumulated more equipment during 2011 than any other year in the program’s two-decade history. That follows the overall trend in the program, which last year doled out almost $500 million in gear, up by more than double from the year before.

Tim Hoyle, another spokesman for the Battle Creek, Mich.-based Defense Logistics Agency, said all weapons will be withheld until the accounting is completed.

That may be easier said than done. Most of the state surplus program coordinators who have responded to records requests from the AP say they only keep paper records, and the few states that keep electronic records only recently made the switch from paper.

The Illinois Department of Central Management Services, for instance, said it would take its staff members at least 500 hours merely to review the records requested by the AP.

“There are over 800 Illinois law enforcement agencies that submit applications to the state under the LESO program,” agency employee Sunny Clark wrote. “CMS would need to go through each file individually in order to gather the records requested, which would be a difficult and time-consuming process.”

In a letter dated May 24, the military notified the state of Florida that it had failed to certify that a “complete (100 percent) physical inventory” of weapons, aircraft, Humvees and armored personnel carriers was completed in 2011. The agency said it intended to suspend Florida from participating in the Law Enforcement Support Office program if the certifications weren’t received by June 22.

But a Florida official who supervises the state coordinator for the program said the letter was sent in error, because the state had, in fact, completed its required annual audit.

“We should be receiving a letter from LESO in the coming days formally rescinding their earlier memo,” the official, Mike McClure, wrote in a June 1 email to several colleagues.

Hoyle said the letters were tailored to each state based on the information the agency is seeking.

The surplus program has grown exponentially in recent years, with a record $498 million worth of property distributed in fiscal year 2011. That includes $191 million in aircraft alone and more than 15,000 weapons worth nearly $4.8 million. Military officials said the program has become more popular as law enforcement agencies sustain deep budget cuts.

The sudden cutoff in the supply of free weapons is an “inconvenience,” but not a big problem, said Jeff Shadburn, Ohio’s program coordinator. Shadburn said he already had collected the information as previously required, but now he simply has to certify the information under the penalty of perjury.

Conte, the New Hampshire coordinator, said some of the other equipment law enforcement agencies receive through the program is more needed at times.

“The weapons part of it is a small part compared to everything else, but it’s an important part,” he said.