Now that the Trump White House has reauthorized the Pentagon to give leftover bayonets, grenade launchers, and other military gear to police, officials hope that this time around the cops won't misplace the goods or hock them on the black market.
That has been a recurrent problem for the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 Program, which provides surplus military goods to civilian law enforcement agencies.
n 2014, a Columbus, Ohio, police officer was charged with embezzling 1033 Program property valued at $252,000, including diesel generators, restaurant gear and unspecified vehicles -- some of which he sold on Craigslist.
The same year, a former Texas police chief was charged with fraudulently obtaining more than $4 million worth of such goods, including a Thompson Ramo Wooldridge M14 machine gun, and selling, trading, or otherwise disposing of them, or trying to, for personal gain.
In other instances, police agencies somehow lost track of their equipment -- including rifles and pistols -- prompting their suspension from the program by the Defense Logistics Agency, which runs it.
"Things have been known to get a little crazy," said a Pentagon staff member who is not authorized to speak the press, and insisted on anonymity.
The extent of such fraud, illicit transfers and other abuses is not known, but about 8,000 police agencies around the country are enrolled in the program, which has transferred more than $6 billion worth of property since 1997, said Patrick Mackin, a spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency.
Rooted in policies dating to 1944, the program functions like a vast outlet mall for law officers, who can now go online and select from a range of gratis offerings. These include large items such as inflatable boats suitable for rescuing people from floodwaters, helicopters useful in patrolling remote areas, plus rifles, pistols, bedsheets, lawnmowers -- and most anything else that the world’s most powerful military force might have lying around.
Up to a point. Most combat items never make it on the approved distribution list, although some cycle on and off it, depending on various decrees, including: grenade launchers (good for breaching barricaded doors in hostage situations); bayonets (good for cutting belted occupants out of car wrecks); and tank-like vehicles (crowd control, rough terrain). "Less than 5 percent of the total goods are controlled materiel," Mackin said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced before a Fraternal Order of Police audience in August that the Trump administration was lifting an Obama-era ban against giving such warfighting items to police. The ban was imposed largely over the bad optics of police using military gear in 2014 to confront rioters in Ferguson, Mo.
Sessions’ move shifted the pendulum back to a greater emphasis on law and order. "We will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become the new normal," Sessions said.
Although all equipment transfers are required to be monitored closely, that does not always happen -- as an undercover government operation revealed last year. To assess the program, the Government Accountability Office created a fake federal agency complete with a phony website and personnel, according to Zina Merritt, director of Defense Capabilities and Management.
It then sent its orders to the DLA's Law Enforcement Support Office. Merritt said the fake agency soon received about $1.2 million in very real military goods, including training versions of pipe bombs and M16 rifles, which could have been easily converted into lethal weapons.
The logistics agency shipped the items without confirming that the end-user actually existed, Merritt said. Nor did it contact anyone up the applicants' (nonexistent) chain of command to verify the requests.
"Specifically, at the time of our review, DLA did not require supervisory approval for all federal agency applications," Merritt wrote in an email to RealClearInvestigations.
A primary challenge now, said another Pentagon staff member who insisted on anonymity, is weeding through applications for Pentagon largess. "Most are legit, but some are ridiculous."
In Alabama, the Jefferson County sheriff requested men's underwear (no word on whether boxers or briefs) -- not just for office staff but inmates too, "for the health and welfare of all personnel."
"Excess DoD property requested thru [sic] this program cannot be requested for inmates of your jail," the DLA responded.
Also in Alabama, the Blount County Sheriff's Office asked for two vans to haul lawn mowers and the inmate road crew that picks up trash. Again the DLA had objections to using the equipment for convicts.
Program managers denied other cop requests for televisions, grills, coolers, gymnastics equipment, golf carts, luggage, treadmills, dehumidifiers, cameras, and other items, including a self-propelled vacuum cleaner, whose value -- $500,000 – no one contacted for this article had an explanation for.
One agency wanted a scooter to be used when patrolling a dinosaur fossil park. Denied. A police department asked for items in the "saddlery, harness and whips" category, to help handle animals housed in a spare jail cell. Denied. Another asked for scales so cops could weigh themselves. Denied, and hold the doughnut jokes.
In some cases, the DLA drily noted that the number of items requested did not match an agency's personnel roster. Other times, the logistics group wrote that the requesting agencies had not sent receipts for previous 1033-supplied items.
In the wake of the fake police department sting, the logistics agency has tightened controls, said Merritt of the Government Accountability Office. But in case of a relapse, the GAO is keeping some of the operation’s details close to the vest.
"We are not disclosing the name of the agency created because this information speaks to law enforcement-sensitive sources and methods for performing our investigative work," Merritt said.
When military meets Mayberry, you sometimes can’t tell who’s a straight shooter.