By Bartholomew Sullivan
WASHINGTON — The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office has received more than 200 M-16 or M-14 rifles, 1,800 flashlights, a helicopter, night-vision goggles and 30 pairs of snowshoes through a Pentagon program that gives surplus military equipment to local police.
The Department of Defense’s 1033 program is getting closer scrutiny these days because of the perceived militarization of police departments stemming from the response to unrest in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Ventura County Assistant Sheriff Gary Pentis said his agency is sensitive to the perception and has been reading American Civil Liberties Union reports on militarization of police forces.
“I think it’s very important that we identify with our community as civilian police officers and not appear as military,” Pentis said Tuesday.
A review of a database of Ventura County acquisitions indicates the Sheriff’s Office has not received the mine-resistant ambush-protected armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers and other battlefield equipment that have prompted an outcry.
But it did receive some night-vision sniper scopes in 2007 that originally cost the military $9,546 each.
Other law enforcement agencies in the county did not immediately respond to messages about their possible participation in the 1033 program.
Congress created the program in 1990 as a means of transferring excess property to agencies fighting the war on drugs. It was expanded in 1997 to provide equipment “for any bona fide law enforcement purposes” and since has donated excess supplies worth a total of $5.1 billion, including $449.3 million last year.
“I think it’s a fair question about the federal government cost,” Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett said. “But to the extent the federal government’s spending policies are broken, if the equipment’s going somewhere, we ought to have it here in Ventura County because we’re making appropriate and good use of it.”
Bennett said the county has long been cognizant of concern about militarization of its law enforcement force, and elected officials have had candid conversations with law enforcement officials about avoiding it.
“Particularly with Sheriff (Geoff) Dean, we’ve been careful not to do this militarization,” he said. “We’re getting this military stuff, but we’re a civilian police force. They’ve been very sensitive about making that distinction.”
Efforts in Washington to rein in the program, including an amendment to the House-passed Defense Authorization Act on June 19 that would have prohibited donations of bombs, missiles and mines to local law enforcement agencies, failed on a 355-62 vote. All three congressional members who represent parts of Ventura County voted against it.
Nonetheless, there appears to be a renewed bipartisan interest in curbing excesses. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said this week he’ll be introducing legislation to prevent transfers of certain equipment, including armored vehicles, silencers and stun grenades, from Defense Department arsenals to local agencies. And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blamed Washington for providing an incentive for municipal governments to create “small armies.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week the 1033 program would be scrutinized before the Defense Authorization Act gets a floor vote.
But Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, defended the program he helped shepherd through the House Armed Services Committee again this year.
“Transferring surplus equipment from the military to local law enforcement is about more than excess weapons and armored vehicles,” McKeon said in a statement to The Star.
“In fact, weapons make up only 5 percent of the program and tactical vehicles less than 1 percent. The rest is equipment like generators, cargo trucks and humanitarian supplies that are resources local law enforcement agencies rely on for disaster response, counterterrorism and counterdrug efforts. If surplus military equipment isn’t transferred, these agencies will have to spend taxpayer resources acquiring it elsewhere.”
He noted that there is room for oversight of tactical equipment, but the events in Ferguson appear to be rooted in broader public concerns rather than a small Defense Department program intended to save taxpayer dollars.
Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the program has never received adequate oversight. He said slightly dated inventory is being offered by the Pentagon “so it can get new toys. … It’s the DOD’s yard sale except they don’t charge anything.”
Ventura County has been involved in the 1033 program since 1993 and has received military hardware originally worth millions of dollars, from radio amplifiers to infrared weapons sights. In March, it received three industrial X-ray machines, originally worth $17,073 each, which Pentis said went to the medical center. The county got a utility helicopter in 2012 that originally cost the Pentagon $922,704. It has received five utility trucks since 2007 originally valued between $56,988 and $60,566.
The county in 2010 received four forward-looking infrared imaging systems that originally cost the Defense Department $689,078 each, according to a database compiled this year by The Detroit Free Press newspaper.
The infrared devices are used on the sheriff’s four helicopters and used in search-and-rescue missions at night, Pentis said. They were employed in the search for missing Arcadia firefighter Mike Herdman, who was eventually found dead in Los Padres National Forest in late June.
The M-14 rifles are used in ceremonial events such as parades, memorials and funerals, Pentis said, and the M-16s were “civilianized” and placed in the armory for use by special weapons and tactics teams.
A lot of the equipment — including tents, sleeping bags, water bladders, electricity generators and first aid gear — are stockpiled for emergency preparedness, he said.
And for rugged mountains in the county that sometimes get covered by up to 6 feet of snow, the Sheriff’s Office acquired snowshoes this year for use by volunteer search-and-rescue teams, Pentis said. He referred to the source of supplies as “DRMO” items, referring to the Defense Reutilization Marketing Office, which coordinates 1033 shipments.
“I’d have to say we’ve saved several million dollars, minimum, on things that we would have had to purchase for the safety of Ventura County that we didn’t have to through DRMO,” Pentis said. “It’s saved a lot of taxpayer dollars, and some of this equipment has truly saved lives.”