Sacramento’s army—the sequel

Oversight, accountability issues still dog military's freebie programs

After recent events in Ferguson, Mo., media interest in the militarization of local law enforcement increased dramatically.

After recent events in Ferguson, Mo., media interest in the militarization of local law enforcement increased dramatically.

Read our 2012 cover story on local law-enforcement agencies and military freebies, “Sacramento's army,” at

President Barack Obama’s unfolding plan to expand military operations against the terror network known as ISIS may cue déjà vu for a war-weary nation, but the metastasizing conflict could have one unlikely beneficiary: local cops.

Just like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did a decade before, throwing down with a vaguely defined military threat tends to put the Pentagon in a charitable mood. Between 2006 and 2008, when the military transitioned its infantries to lightweight M4 carbine assault rifles, local police agencies scored thousands of free M16s and M14s.

This year and last, as combat forces withdrew from the Middle East, the military handed out mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles—known as MRAPs—to small-town police in Davis, Citrus Heights and elsewhere.

These federal-surplus programs have become the subject of renewed scrutiny ever since August 9, when a white police officer gunned down an unarmed black teenager and turned the small town of Ferguson, Mo., into a civil-rights flashpoint for the militarization debate.

Yet, long before Michael Brown’s death sparked confrontations between demonstrators and tank-driving cops, budget-restricted police agencies were cashing in on military freebies—and blurring the thin blue line between constable and soldier.

Sacramento’s military bounty

In March 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s now-defunct California Watch scoured reams of poorly annotated Excel spreadsheets to report on the 1033 Program. Using California Watch’s database, SN&R ran a cover story that June (“Sacramento’s army” by Raheem F. Hosseini, June 7, 2012) about all the armory that law-enforcement agencies across the Sacramento region had acquired for free.

Since those reports, the transfer of military hardware from the Pentagon to Sacramento has slowed, according to an SN&R review of data. The kind of items arriving in the past few years has also shifted, from firepower and aircraft to bomb-disposal and surveillance toys.

Some local authorities think this reflects both a shift in what law enforcement requisitions and what the military has available.

“I would say it’s a 50-50 split,” said Sgt. Jim Schaefers, who coordinates the 1033 Program for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, one of California’s largest beneficiaries. “I guess it’s because the military is gearing down.”

During the salad days of the Iraq War, when everything was going to shit, law-enforcement agencies benefited from the constant upgrade of military gear. For instance, Sacramento County-based agencies raked in 1,027 assault rifles and eight grenade launchers between 2006 and 2008, just as the military phased in the M4 carbines.

Only 19 M16s have arrived in the county since then—all procured by the Elk Grove Police Department in 2011.

After loading up on small arms in 2006—to the tune of 287 M16 rifles—the sheriff’s department is now largely preoccupied with maintaining the equipment it has. Last year, it brought in 10 gun-cleaning kits, six storage racks, 284 pistol holsters, dozens of magazine pouches and some sighting equipment for the firing range.

This makes sense, noted William Vizzard, a Sacramento State University criminal justice professor with a moderate take. “For one thing, if you get 216 M16s, you don’t need 216 M16s again next year,” he said.

The department has also taken in enough tools and camping gear to fill multiple Home Depots, various trucking and hauling vehicles, and an ambulance it’s about to give back. (It already has one.) An armored South African vehicle known as a Mamba arrived in 2011, and looks like something Michael Bay uses for grocery shopping, while the department also obtained one of three large helicopters in the state for search-and-rescue missions.

This year, the sheriff’s department received 20 kevlar blankets, roughly 50 pounds each, that its bomb squad uses to contain shrapnel from controlled blasts, as well as a 4-foot robot that can be mounted with a camera and water cannon for extinguishing possible pipe bombs. It also accepted eight smaller surveillance robots, which look like remote-controlled cars with small cameras mounted on them. It kept two and transferred the rest to other agencies.

All told, the sheriff’s department has cleared north of $11.6 million worth of free tactical gear since 2006. “It has saved millions,” Schaefers said. “These are items that are very much wanted, but you just can’t afford them.”

No free rides

Late last year, a chaotic manhunt brought parts of Roseville to a siren-streaked standstill, as nine different law enforcement agencies tried to coax an armed parolee from a home near Windsor Drive and Sixth Street.

Hours earlier, the attempted arrest of Samuel Duran erupted into a roving shootout that injured six officers and Duran himself. Holed up in a house that wasn’t his, the unpredictable fugitive provided a nearby agency a unique opportunity: That evening in October 2013, the Citrus Heights Police Department deployed its slightly used MRAP for the first time.

“It provided a lot of safe haven for our officers in that and two other SWAT operations,” Citrus Heights police spokesman Sgt. Mike Wells told SN&R last week.

With the ability to absorb high-caliber rounds, Wells claimed the armored vehicle can be used as a mobile shield, to get police in close to downed officers or civilians and transport them out of dangerous active-shooter situations.

Others have questioned why vehicles designed to patrol urban combat zones have become the rage with small-town constables.

For Timothy Naccarato, an assistant dean at the McGeorge School of Law and a retired U.S. Army JAG colonel, armored vehicles probably make better sense for firefighters battling forest blazes than cops. “Even as a show of force, using an MRAP vehicle designed to save lives from IEDs seems out of proportion to demonstrators and even looters (who generally are unarmed),” he wrote in an email.

The Citrus Heights Police Department uses its MRAP for SWAT training and recently sent it on a less dangerous mission: idling down Sunrise Boulevard for the city’s Fourth of July parade.

Vizzard suggested the problem has less to do with the supply than the demand, saying certain small-town agencies exhibit something akin to short-guy syndrome. “There’s going to be some chiefs and some sheriffs who are going to be enamored with having more toys,” he said. “It’s pride of ownership.”

Along with Citrus Heights and Davis, there’s an MRAP in rural Amador County. Kern County cops have five. The West Sacramento Police Department received an unspecified item valued at $65,070. That price corresponds with an armored vehicle.

With President Obama marshaling support for expanded air strikes against ISIS, could hand-me-down drones be next?

Law enforcement already uses them in limited capacity. Whether more arrive through military-surplus programs or are developed via civilian contracts depends on the costs of maintaining and operating the technology, Vizzard surmised. “I guarantee you, drones are going to get used.”

There’s a bill currently before the governor to restrict how law enforcement uses the notorious remote-bombing machines. But Vizzard thinks reigning in military-surplus programs rests with cost-minded local officials—namely city councils, county boards of supervisors and their chief administrators, who will want to know the associated costs of accepting that shiny new drone or helicopter.

Case in point: The Sacramento Police Department is pursuing a $300,000 federal grant so that its surplus-supplied helicopter unit can add flight hours and expand “surveillance of potential terrorist targets,” a staff report states. “If adequate funding is not obtained, the helicopters will have to be grounded.”

Proof that what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East.

Big guns, little oversight

The idea of police agencies evolving into paramilitary forces casts as far back as World War II, says Sac State’s Vizzard.

That’s not to say he doesn’t see issues with the way these programs are administered. “The weakness is in that the federal government is not really in a position to supervise what happens to the equipment once it gets there,” he said. “You can’t say that it’s well administered in the broadest sense.”

Those responsible for the program already know this.

The federal government’s ability to track its goods has experienced “serious flaws” since 2005, according to an unaudited financial report from the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the donation-centric 1033 Program.

Even with repeated warnings, however, participation in the program was allowed to grow. In 2011 and 2012, the Law Enforcement Support Office sent out $546 million worth of equipment comprising 68,000 individual line items, representing a nearly 60 percent spike in requests from the previous year. But the federal government couldn’t account for all the guns and ammo it dispatched to local communities.

In California, nine agencies are currently suspended from the program after auditors were unable to locate automatic rifles and handguns procured from the military.

“Essentially, it’s poor record-keeping,” said California Office of Emergency Services deputy director Kelly Huston, whose office acts as a liaison between federal military-surplus programs and 355 statewide law-enforcement agencies.

Huston said most agencies were eventually able to find the missing firearms. But not all of them did.

The California Highway Patrol unit in Sacramento, the Stockton Police Department, and sheriff’s departments in Sutter, Napa, Stanislaus, San Mateo and Siskiyou counties are among those suspended from the program.

It’s now easier to know which agencies have stumbled and which ones haven’t.

Flooded with multiple requests for data since the events in Ferguson, Cal OES last week uploaded the contents of Uncle Sam’s war chest to its website. Huston acknowledged the role that Brown’s death played in the office’s decision to make information on surplus programs more widely available. “Because of the increased amount of inquiries, it makes sense for us,” he said. “It’s of greater public benefit.”

“Two years ago,” he added, “nobody cared.”

Almost no one.