Michigan police big and small defend use of military gear

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.

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Thu, 04/23/2015 - 7:29am
"Allegan County Sheriff Department in 2013 got an MRAP, the mine-resistant vehicle" Well sure because you never know when those out of control rural folks might start planting mines and the police have got to be prepared. Why did they not also get an attack helicopter? LOL.
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 9:58am
Before you speak poorly about having MRAP vehicles, go talk to the MSP Trooper who's life was saved when a deranged man shot twice into the windshield with a high powered rifle. The MRAP stopped both shots and saved the officer. Is this program abused, yes. But would you rather your tax dollars be spent buying this equipment, again!? A few bad apples don't ruin the tree. But we need to remove them from the bucket!
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 5:32pm
Sorry, didn't know anything about the shooting incident.
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 9:13am
state and local police are supposed to serve and protect but give the boys and girls weapons of war and that is exactly the attitude they development - "us" against them and them being you and me
Joseph E Sucher
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 10:45am
I prefer to think the "them" you refer to is not you and me, but the "bad guys." And I'm all for that.
Mary Ellen
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 9:40am
Makes me think the gun nuts may be onto something. Maybe we do have to arm ourselves against the government? (Just kidding)
Steve Thorpe
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 9:46am
"The program saves taxpayers from footing the bill ..." Oh, really? And who exactly pays for all this crap? The boondoggle fairy? The idea that Humvees from Uncle Sugar are free shows a basic failure to follow the money. The already ridiculously overpriced (and underachieving) Humvee, because of all the hands it passes through, costs many times its original staggering price by the time it arrives at Anytown PD. And all your readers get to pay for it. Some bargain.
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 9:59am
Military equipment should be donated and reutilized responsibly by Police, Fire and Rescue organizations, after all the vehicles and equipment was purchased with tax payers money. When it comes to knowledge and understanding of the U.S Military and military equipment some of the comments made reflect sincere ignorance and demonstrates a need to improve our educational system.
Big D in Cvx
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 9:59am
Downsize the military--lots of "unneeded" equipment and supplies. Later on, we'll recognize the mistake, and have to buy replacements. The idea that Michigan police depts. receiving this stuff is saving taxpayers dollars is a joke.
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 10:06am
Armies fight enemy forces. Whom do you suppose the enemy force is when the Special Forces wannabes take over the local cop shop? That's right, citizen -- YOU are the enemy, far too often. We've seen it all over the country. I still have no idea why the hell Brooks Patterson needs a tank. Late-night booze runs in any weather?
Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:14am
This column and its responses bring to mind a few random thoughts. A decade or two ago there was a bill before the Michigan legislature to ban ticket quotas for cops. Chiefs of police came to Lansing to testify against the bill. They all agreed there was no such thing as ticket quotas, but did not want to see a law prohibiting a nonexistent thing. These are the same people who now say military weapons are needed to maintain order in any-town Michigan. Also decades ago, Lansing's mayor Gerald Graves was trying to convince local citizens that it was a good idea for the Capitol City to acquire a surplus helicopter or two from the military. They were "free," he said (as if some foreign country had paid for the initial purchase). Lansing did acquire two "free" helicopters, but the cost of maintenance and aviators made the program impossible to maintain. Any scenario can be imagined to justify acquiring military surplus equipment. I venture to say, however, that the agency that has the supply of snowshoes on hand has never had anyone walk for any distance in this footwear. It is not easy trudging through the snow with these devices. In my opinion, the military-industrial complex has to keep its factories running and the Pentagon tries to help its suppliers by seeing that more equipment is always needed. The Department of Defense does this by declaring great quantities of stuff to be surplus, thereby creating voids that need to be filled by newly manufactured gear. Giving things away to the police all over America helps this process along and the taxpayers don't complain because they are told they're much safer as a result.
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 10:32pm
I'm with you LeRoy
Clifford Styrk
Fri, 04/24/2015 - 11:24am
Mr. Barnett's comments are closer to the truth of what's occurring with excess military equipment. Jobs creating this equipment are located in powerful congressional districts and to protect powerful policitans in keeping their " seats" you have to keep the jobs there. Each " scratch" the other's back. Unfortunately because of this cycle excess military equipment must be disposed of so give it to the local police as to someone or some country of dubious character. Pausing on that subject, wouldn't excess money spent on the military- industrial complex be better spent on our nations infra- structure? More jobs created, 21 st century electric grid, roads, bridges, airports, seaports, water and sewer systems, schools, health systems! Reals jobs for Americans, middle class wages, citizens working to make our entire nation better. Look at what our politicans have done for corporations by giving them " free trade packs" and what our lost jobs have done to modernize China and other nations while we decay! " One Nation Under God" we pledge to but we've become divided and are failing in purpose!
Uncle Danny
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:18am
Guess we need to better define the mission of a police force. Has society changed that much that we need weapons of war to police communities? Or, is the offer of free items now defining how to police? Time for some review of all this and some soul searching as to how police can be safe but still relate as stewards of safety. This is a slippery slope down which some police agencies are sliding. And the unintended outcomes are already being seen.
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:34am
The thing that needs to be seen here is the out of control military budget. In the past few years, the military has seen its requests INCREASED by our dysfunctional Congress, who try to out macho each other by adding more and more expenditures to the military. The military has to off-load the stuff somewhere. But it also comes with the proviso that it has to be used. Why on earth does a small town need a grenade launcher? Why are they getting how power rifles and tanks? The militarization of the police, matched with deep currents of racism, and blue code of silence is creating an environment in which police are slowly but surely becoming an oppressive force in our communities.
Mark Perry
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:42am
Other than the obvious cosmetic differences between the common semi-automatic sporting rifle that can be legally purchased at any sporting goods store and an equivalent military surplus rifle, there is no difference in the bullet either rifle shoots. I personally would rather our locally elected city/township/county officials [not] appropriate our limited locally levied and collected property tax dollars to purchase [new] rifles when perfectly functional [used] rifles previously paid for with federal tax dollars can be obtained at no cost to local property taxpayers. Again, in this example its is not the appearance of the gun that makes any difference because they discharge the same bullet at the same velocity and range.
Burt J. Vincent
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:44am
I think a little paranoia is in order here by the average citizen. Ask yourself why do we need an unoccupied prison complex with an airport attatched capable of handling the largest jet load of passengers directly down a jet way and into incarceration. It is Kinross International Airport! How many international passengers have passed through there?
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:22pm
When police become militarized, don't they then think more like soldiers...whose job is NOT to protect, but to win a perceived war.
Gene Markel
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 1:42pm
In 1829, the English government shifted policing from a paramilitary force comprised mainly of volunteers to an organized force comprised of citizens. But it made it very clear that English police derived their power from the consent of the people, rather than from a government mandate. The following are the nine rules were established for the police. 1.To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment. 2.To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect. 3.To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws. 4.To recognize always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives. 5.To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life. 6.To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective. 7.To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence. 8.To recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty. 9.To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them. It is time to revisit these 9 rules and apply them to the 21st Century Police.
Retired PD
Sun, 04/26/2015 - 9:21am
The deployment of snipers in the Ferguson incident made cops across America cringe. It was a poor decision but not something to cause this program to be criticized. If the snipers had been sitting on an ice cream truck, the deployment would still have been a bad decision. The vehicles were not the problem. The MRAP, while having capabilities above what average police departments need, is bulletproof. The cost of purchasing a bulletproof vehicle from the private sector is very high so this might be a good value if maintenance costs don't blow up the budget; I suspect no one will have one in five years due to costs or lack of parts. Thetford Twp PD shows there is little oversight on what is being ordered. That type of abuse of the system needs to be addressed but overall the program is a success. When this story ran on MLive months ago, the data base indicated there was a PD that received an inflatable bounce castle...so you never know.
John Q. Public
Sun, 04/26/2015 - 11:25pm
I believe that's part of the argument against those vehicles: the response is geared to the equipment instead of vice-versa. If ice-cream trucks were all that had been available, the tactic would never have been deployed.
Sun, 04/26/2015 - 9:45am
One of the big problems with these armaments coming from the federal government is that it means we no longer have local police forces. We have local branchs of the national police force. It's not quite as simple as either/or, but it's much harder for local governments to control their police forces when a significant part of the funding comes from elsewhere.
Mon, 04/27/2015 - 8:22am
What about sending some of that stuff over to the Kurds. They are about our only reliable ally against the ISIS group and we can't even send them a screwdriver. I fully agree with a couple of the other comments by others. WE already have paid for that stuff once and you can bet it will be replaced and we will pay again. And you wonder why the defense budget is so out of this world. That stuff has value. Maybe some of our friends over in the middle east, or in central and south America fighting the drug cartels might actually buy it at 10c on the dollor. Give the taxpayer a break for a change.
Thu, 12/03/2015 - 2:35pm
What will Obama do with these items? Give them to what country or to what people. I say KEEP these items - our US citizens paid for them and I am glad you have these tanks, etc. Refuse and we will back you up. If the White House came under seige would he want the army and police to have cover?