Portland-area police receive $2 million in surplus military equipment

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PORTLAND — In the past nine years, Portland-area police departments have received more than $2.07 million worth of combat rifles, armored vehicles and other equipment through a Defense Department program that transfers military supplies to domestic law enforcement agencies.

A review of inventories released by the Pentagon in November and compiled by nonprofit news site The Marshall Project shows that since 2006 nine law enforcement agencies in the area have received equipment through the so-called 1033 program.

In Cape Elizabeth, police received four 7.62 mm M-14 rifles valued at $138 each, the last of which was received on Jan. 5, 2011. Police at the University of Southern Maine received four 5.56 mm M-16 rifles valued at $499 apiece in 2008.

The Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office received five M-14 rifles in 2006. Yarmouth police got eight night vision intensifiers, valued at more than $51,000, in 2012.

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In 2013, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and South Portland Police Department each received mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, valued at $689,000 and $658,000, respectively. The vehicles were designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Other departments picked up dozens of pieces of night-vision equipment, high-powered rifles, laptop computers and tactical sights.

Police department officials insist the program helps keep citizens and officers safe, and allows them to equip their departments with material they cannot otherwise afford.

But critics say giving equipment designed for the battleground to local cops militarizes U.S. law enforcement. There have been calls from civil liberties groups and others for reforms to ensure transparency and accountability, if not to discontinue the program entirely.

How it works

The 1033 program was established through federal law in 1991 and expanded in 1996. As currently managed, it allows agencies to request available equipment online through the Defense Logistics Agency.

Requests are vetted by a state-level coordinator and then reviewed by the DLA’s Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO, in Battle Creek, Michigan. If a request is approved, the equipment is provided at no cost, although agencies have to pay for transportation and delivery.

That means departments are able to collect equipment outside of the normal public budget process, and there is no requirement that procurement be reviewed or authorized by local civilian authorities.

Denied requests, at least on the state level, are “very few and far between,” said Sgt. Jason Wagner, of the Sanford Police Department, who is Maine’s 1033 program coordinator.

In most cases, the requests are vetted and quickly passed on to the LESO, Wagner said. They are only held up if there are questions about whether an agency’s request seems excessive or redundant.

Departments are required to report their holdings in an annual inventory, and are subject to biennial compliance review by LESO. Agencies can be suspended or removed from the program for missing or damaged equipment.

While weapons and vehicles receive the most attention, only 4 percent of the equipment delivered to law enforcement agencies are “controlled” items, like rifles, and less than 1 percent are tactical vehicles, according to the DLA. Controlled items remain Defense Department property and have to be returned when departments no longer have use for them.

Approximately 460,000 pieces of controlled equipment have been transferred to local and federal agencies, according to a White House review of the program.

‘Very dangerous people’

“As police chief, I think the term ‘militarizing’ is such a misnomer ]for the program],” South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins said. “We are not militarizing our police; we are equipping our police to deal with crime and issues in our communities. Unfortunately, we deal with very dangerous people.”

Googins, along with Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, said the armored vehicles their departments have received are essential for protecting civilians and officers in potentially violent situations, and could not have been obtained any other way because of the cost.

“The program is incredibly beneficial to law enforcement because money is tight. If there are ways to acquire equipment we need, shame on us for not taking advantage of that,” Googins said.

Out of the more than $853,000 worth of material acquired by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, two tactical vehicles stand out.

Joyce said he was looking for an upgraded armored vehicle for the CCSO’s tactical team as early as 2010. An armoured vehicle can cost up to $250,000, but Cumberland County commissioners were already planning a costly renovation of the former Civic Center in Portland.

With the purchase out of question, Joyce found a free, 1982 Peacekeeper vehicle valued at more than $65,000 through the 1033 program in 2011. The small vehicle needed armor upgrades that were paid for with drug forfeiture money.

In 2013, the department acquired a larger MRAP previously used for training in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A corrections officer with military training inspected the vehicle, “and gave it an A,” Joyce said. The department then spent about $9,500 from drug forfeiture funds to bring the vehicle back to Maine.

“I think the story should be Cumberland County sheriff saves taxpayers $240,000,” Joyce said. “It has really changed how we respond to someone who is believed or known to be armed. It is a platform to get people safe if shooting breaks out.”

Googins and Joyce said the MRAPs are not deployed for any kind of routine duty. The South Portland vehicle can be used for tactical operations in a joint regional tactical team that includes officers from Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.

“There is a threat matrix we go through, it has to meet a certain level before the tactical team is even deployed,” Googins said.

Joyce and Portland-area police chiefs said their use of military surplus programs is based on the increasing threats their officers and the public face, citing a deadly 1997 police standoff in North Hollywood, California, where officers lacked the robber’s armor and firepower.

The April 12, 2012, raid in Greenland, New Hampshire, where Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney and two suspects were killed while four detectives were wounded, also stands out.

“I’ve seen a change, just when warrants are being served,” Joyce said. “[You think] ‘what are the chances this could turn bad?’”

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the $91,000 worth of equipment his department received in the 1033 program is mostly for ensuring his officers are properly armed to handle potentially violent drug dealers.

The most expensive item received by city police is a truck valued at $65,000, but Sauschuck said the 30 M-16 rifles and sights are most important.

“Really for us, it is all public safety-related. In day-to-day life, there is certainly more a counter-narcotics component,” he said. “We are trying to give our officers and our community the most protection possible.”

The Brunswick Police department acquired six M-16 and four M-14 rifles in two transfers in 2008 and 2012. Officials asserted the weapons were needed to provide protection against suspects who might be better armed than police officers.

“It’s always good to have a little more firepower,” Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo said.

The department intended to equip patrol cruisers with high-powered rifles through budget requests, but decided to save money by acquiring the weapons through a 1033 requisition.

“It’s recently become really popular to disparage this program, but it’s been an effective budgeting tool for us,” Deputy Chief Marc Hagan said.

Other than rifles, Brunswick has also received 16 tactical sights, 16 night vision image intensifiers, and three laptop computers, adding up to equipment valued at $120,091. Brunswick has not received any vehicles, and Rizzo said it turned down an MRAP when it was offered several years ago.

“We just found it something that wouldn’t suit our needs,” he said. “We don’t just take things because they are free, we take them because there is a need.”

Officials from departments that received weapons said that there was little to no added cost or time needed to train officers to use them. Because tactical vehicles are used so seldom, there is also little maintenance cost involved, they said.

The most varied use of the 1033 program has arguably been by the Scarborough Police Department.

Scarborough’s acquisitions range from 40 first-aid kits valued at $90 each, to a $126,000 armored truck, and two $10,000 explosive removal robots. In all, the department has brought in more than $168,000 worth of equipment, but has not received any weapons.

The two robotic devices, one of which is used for spare parts, can be used in a dangerous situation to assess potential threats while officers and civilians shelter behind an armored vehicle, saving time and allowing police to fully survey the setting before taking action, Police Chief Robert Moulton said.

“This whole thing has brought about the discussion of police departments becoming more militarized,” Moulton said. “The reality is we have been served very well in a different number of ways.”

More oversight needed?

Despite officials’ insistence that the 1033 program allows them to get equipment they need, it has been criticized by civil liberties groups and others who say the trend is irresponsible and dangerous.

Outrage over the program became pronounced in the aftermath of violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, when images of heavily armed police facing off against demonstrators shocked observers around the country.

A review of the 1033 and similar programs commissioned by the White House and released in December found that, while providing material that makes citizens and officers safer, in many cases there is insufficient transparency, training and oversight.

When police improperly use equipment or make poor operational choices, the programs “can facilitate excessive uses of force and serve as a highly visible barrier between police and the communities they serve,” the review noted.

Among its recommendations, the report suggested requiring that requisition requests receive review and authorization from non-police officials, mandate necessary training, and require after-action reports for incidents involving material obtained through the program.

In Maine, the American Civil Liberties Union is also calling for increased local and statewide oversight of the equipment departments are requesting.

“Our police officers aren’t trained to be soldiers, and really their objectives need to be much different,” Alison Beyea, executive director of Maine ACLU, said.

If police are going to continue to gather material through the 1033 program, they should be recording and documenting where, when and against whom the equipment is being used, she said.

Specifically, the ACLU would like quarterly legislative reports on how the equipment is being deployed.

“I hope that this is the beginning of a long conversation about police behavior and the role of police in our communities,” Beyea said. “I think that if people in Maine knew the true extent of the equipment that local governments have, they would be shocked.”

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