Editor's note: An earlier version of this story noted that the Defense Logistics Agency's database shows it gave the Michigan State Police a $3.1 million aircraft. However, a spokeswoman for the state police said the agency later decided it did not want the plane and a DLA spokesman confirmed that state police did not take possession of it.
When you think “military gear” and local police, you may think body armor and Humvees, rifles and binoculars.
But definitely not snowshoes.
In the wake of the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, angry residents faced police armed with military weapons and armored vehicles, creating a semi-military standoff that drew international attention and much criticism. And almost immediately, the U.S. Defense Department program to transfer surplus gear to local law enforcement agencies stirred renewed controversy upon the first release of data in the weeks after Ferguson.
Indeed, a number of Michigan departments have taken advantage of the program to secure mine-resistant vehicles (17 different departments snatched one in 2013 or 2014) and more than 2,900 rifles (M14 and M16) since 1995, according to the most recent quarterly report from the Defense Logistics Agency program.
The Oakland County Sheriff’s department is one of the biggest recipients, getting an armored personnel carrier, 250 pairs of night-vision goggles, six sets of body armor and six utility trucks. All told, it has received more than 7,000 items that had an original value of nearly $4.8 million since 1999. In 2013, the Allegan County Sheriff Department got an MRAP, the mine-resistant vehicle that added to the furor in Ferguson.
But the west Michigan county also got $30,000 in athletic equipment. And for most state and local law enforcement departments in Michigan, the military gear they received through the federal program can look decidedly civilian: Laptop computers, chairs, filing cabinets and TV screens are common items. One department even got a paper shredder.
“I just can’t go down to Office Max or Office Depot and spend $300 on that,” said Dave Duffett, chief of the 10-officer Bridgeport Township police in southeastern Saginaw County, speaking about the document shredder (original military value: $5,000). “Too many people hear it and say it’s the militarization of police, when there is so much more to it.”
Bridgeport Township got more than $529,000 worth of gear from the DLA, which donates retired military equipment to departments across the country.
According to the DLA data, “military” items now with Bridgeport police range from a $3 bandage to a $141,000 forklift. It includes two Humvees, though one can’t move and is used solely for parts for the one that does.
“It won’t be used for everyday operations,” Duffett said. “It’s to be used for search and rescue and inclement weather.”
Grenade launchers - and snowshoes
Across Michigan, departments secured $43.8 million in donated equipment since 1995, including 169 utility vehicles (the previously mentioned Humvees), the 17 mine-resistant vehicles, 9 grenade launchers and those thousands of rifles.
But the chiefs defend the gear ‒ including the snowshoes ‒ saying the program saves taxpayers from footing the bill for simple things like desks and cabinets.
“Anything I don’t have to spend money on is worth it,” said Robert Kenny, chief of the tiny Thetford Township police in Genesee County, north of Flint. There are two full-time officers, including the chief, and three part-time officers.
Kenny has secured over $1 million in gear since 2012, including some vehicles and a couple of rifles which, he said, were being returned; too much training is required to use them.
Stored at the township are hundreds of items, including syringes, sleeping bags, helmets, boots, cold weather trousers – an Army surplus store of stuff. But Kenny said what may look impractical has value: When bad weather hits, or when officers need to help the community, they have additional tools to help.
Which brings us to the snowshoes. In Westland, in western Wayne County, police got 100 pairs for a department in a part of the state where the average annual snowfall is under 43 inches. Crazy? Not to Deputy Chief Todd Adams.
He recalled his department searching for a missing woman one recent winter in Hines Park with officers in their own shoes and boots trudging through deep snow. “It wasn’t really efficient,” Adams said. “Hines Park is expansive.” And with numerous parks, there are situations when the department may need to get off the road and into rougher terrain, he said.
He said the department opted for a Humvee for the same reason. “It allows us to get off road and out into those areas,” Adams said.
Department members did talk about getting an MRAP – mine-resistant, ambush protected – the armored vehicle that has created controversy when used in civilian situations like Ferguson. Adams said department leaders decided it wasn’t something the Westland police needed, in part because of the perception such a vehicle projects.
“Right now it’s not something we’re interested in,” he said.
The DLA program anticipates that police are will take care of the gear for a year or return it if it can’t be used. But after a year, they can dispose of it how they see fit.
For sale: old military equipment
Which is exactly what Thetford Township’s Kenny said he intends to do. He got a truck from the DLA and said he sold it after a year for $3,500. The money goes to pay for the department’s operations.
“If I can find a use for it, I will. If not,” the chief said, “I’ll turn around and sell it to someone. In my opinion, that’s already paid for.”
Though he is open to selling other military items, the truck is the only thing to leave the lot – so far. A couple of people have offered to buy the Humvees, Kenny said. But no dice: “I have no intention of getting rid of my Humvees,” he said.
While technically acceptable, DLA spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill said the selling of former military equipment is not the intent of the program.
“If a police department of eight people ordered 40 pairs of boots, that wouldn’t make sense,” McCaskill said. “It’s not a garage sale, per se.”
Not every department wants to sell their military gear. Grand Ledge’s Chief Martin Underhill said his department uses each of the 17 rifles it got through the program. It saved the city money and it gave each officer a rifle that has a stock and sight that’s been adjusted to fit them.
All told, Grand Ledge has secured just over $40,000 in gear for the 15-officer department. “Everything that we’ve got we’ve used,” Underhill said.