Local law enforcement agencies that wish to obtain free military surplus equipment can now do so after a nearly 1-year suspension was lifted.
The Law Enforcement Services Section (LESS) is running normally again after being suspended in March of 2014 by the Federal Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), which oversees the 1033 program nationally.
LESS facilitates the 1033 program in North Carolina. Under the program, they assist law enforcement agencies with obtaining tactical and non-tactical military grade equipment and supplies.
The 11-month suspension was put in place because LESS failed to properly record all of its inventory for all participating law enforcement agencies.
As of February 10, when the reinstatement went into effect, there were 269 law enforcement agencies actively participating in North Carolina, according to Department of Public Safety Communications Director Pamela Walker. She says there are another 58 that have been approved and are waiting to secure property on or before April 1.
As far as Eastern North Carolina, Walker says Belhaven Police and Holly Ridge Police asked to be removed from the program before the compliance review by LESO began. Those requests were granted.
For non-compliance standards, Walker says the LESS office, with approval from LESO, terminated Beaufort Police, Wallace Police, and Havelock Police. They are 3 of 29 law enforcement agencies in NC who currently can not participate in the program under this latest review.
The Department of Defense has allowed law enforcement agencies across the country to obtain surplus military equipment under section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act since the 1990s. The Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) facilitates the program throughout the country.
Farmville, Pitt County has a population of approximately 5,000. Police Chief Donnie Greene says they've been participating in the 1033 Excess Property Program for at least 10 years. "I can tell you that we do have military weapons, semi-automatic long-rifles that are issued to every police officer," Greene said.
Besides guns, the 8-year police chief says they've acquired 2 hard top Humvees in the last 2 years, and most recently, gym equipment.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety runs the 1033 Program through the Law Enforcement Services Section (LESS) office. According to them, most Eastern Carolina counties have at least one law enforcement agency participating in the program with the exception of Tyrrell County. Eastern Carolina accounts for roughly 15% of the total number of law enforcement agencies participating throughout the state.
Following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri where military-grade equipment was used in calming protests over Michael Brown's controversial death, the program has come under a lot of scrutiny. It was reviewed by the senate in September. The House Armed Services Committee also reviewed the program on November 13th.
Before Ferguson, however, the LESS office in North Carolina was facing challenges of its own. It was suspended by LESO in March because of a failure to report 100% of its equipment inventory within the established deadline. Department of Public Safety Communications Director Pamela Walker says they were insufficiently staffed to deal with the new inventory reporting system within the established deadline.
Elisse Ramey interviewed newly appointed state coordinator for the program, Michael Tart. He's been working to get the program reinstated since October. "I immediately began working with my federal LESO contacts to work through those deliverables and negotiate what would be acceptable in their eyes of things and conditions that needed to be met from this North Carolina LESS office," Tart said.
The deliverables he's talking about are a part of his Corrective Action Plan. Part of the plan would ensure every law enforcement agency that participates in 1033 is registered in the Federal Property Management Information System (FEPMIS). "I'm going to be honest with you, the big gating factor is to make sure this inventory is properly done," Tart said. "We certainly take them [law enforcement agencies] through the steps on how to receipt property and how to properly inventory manage that property."
If all goes well, Tart says their office could be reinstated by February of 2015. Until the suspension is lifted, law enforcement agencies here in North Carolina cannot receive military surplus equipment through the LESS office.
Under normal circumstances, once a law enforcement agency receives approval for the requested equipment, they can come to a disposition services site like the one at Fort Bragg to pick it up. The equipment itself is free, but agencies have to pay to pick it up or ship it. "We have probably $300,000 worth of gym equipment that cost the Town of Farmville nothing except to go pick it up," Greene said.
According to the program's website, they've transferred over 5 billion dollars worth of property to law enforcement agencies since the program began. But, as Chief Greene explained, they do not always receive the equipment they request. "We are held accountable for every bit of it, so it's not something where we can go pick up a Humvee and turn around and sell it."
Accountability is at the center of the debate right now. Tart says annual training is required. So far in 2014, 200 out of 319 active law enforcement agencies in the program have participated in training. But, Representative Hank Jordan of Georgia and Representative Paul Labrador of Idaho are among those who want the program to be more transparent. They also want the type of equipment law enforcement agencies are allowed to receive to be closely monitored. The men introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014 in September that would take some of these steps.
While the type of equipment these agencies have access to is a concern for some, Greene says, "It's not all Humvees and weapons."
According to Walker, 3,303 out of 4,227 pieces of controlled property on their books is tactical equipment. That includes items such as automatic weapons, Humvees, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The rest of it is non-tactical. That can include storage containers, cots, or generators, for example.
The LESS office stresses that they strictly facilitate agencies in obtaining and receipting the equipment. As for how the law enforcement agencies choose to use it, it is not the duty of the LESS office to review.
Chief Greene says much of their military surplus equipment was used as recently as April 2014 when the town had severe flooding. As for the weapons, he believes it levels the playing field between the criminals and the police. "It allows the officers to have some type of equipment equal to the equipment out there." It's equipment he says a small municipality like Farmville might not otherwise be able to afford without the 1033 Program.