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McHenry County, police deal with hidden cost of government surplus of military supplies, vehicles

Photo Illustration by Kyle Grillot - kgrillot@shawmedia.com
More than 100 military firearms, mostly M-16 rifles, 2 armored vehicles, 14 trucks and 19 tactical shotguns, along with a long list of "general issue" equipment have been given to the McHenry County police departments over the past eight years. In 1997, Congress expanded the Law Enforcement Support Office program to transfer excess Department of Defense equipment for general law enforcement purposes.
Photo Illustration by Kyle Grillot - kgrillot@shawmedia.com More than 100 military firearms, mostly M-16 rifles, 2 armored vehicles, 14 trucks and 19 tactical shotguns, along with a long list of "general issue" equipment have been given to the McHenry County police departments over the past eight years. In 1997, Congress expanded the Law Enforcement Support Office program to transfer excess Department of Defense equipment for general law enforcement purposes.

The first notice that Spring Grove Village President Mark Eisenberg had that his police chief wanted to obtain a 40-ton armored vehicle was when he saw it parked behind Village Hall.

A number of Chief Tom Sanders’ acquisitions at almost no cost through government surplus have been beneficial to the village, such as a Humvee that now does a yeoman’s job clearing snow with a plow attachment. But the answer Eisenberg received when he asked Sanders why the department needs a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle designed to protect soldiers from mines and improvised explosive devices — just in case — did not satisfy him.

“As far as that machine goes, I’m as confused as you are as to why we need it,” Eisenberg said.

The two MRAPs in McHenry County, the other now belonging to the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office for its SWAT team, are only two lines on a long spreadsheet of government surplus that has flowed to local police departments. A federal program now under scrutiny after police response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, has added millions of dollars worth of weapons and other military equipment to the inventories of state and local law enforcement, according to newly-updated federal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Items acquired range from the deadly to the harmless to the questionable.

More than 100 military firearms, mostly old M-16 rifles, have been given to McHenry County police departments over the past eight years — records available to the public that track weapons only specify the county in which the department is located. Besides the MRAPs, county police departments over the past four years have snapped up 14 Humvees, some armored.

Valued at $733,300, the sheriff’s office MRAP accounts for about a quarter of the $2.47 million in vehicles and equipment it listed in a May 2014 draft presentation on the items it has received at little cost under the federal Law Enforcement Support Office program. They range from 60 cold-weather caps valued at $5.34 each to a stripped-down Humvee weather station for the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency, valued at almost $1 million, that cost the county just less than $370 to obtain.

And Spring Grove’s new MRAP has company, records show. The police department also has recently acquired two dump trucks, an all-terrain vehicle, three Kawasaki Mules, a tractor, a forklift, a cargo trailer, a forklift trailer and a trailer-mounted military field kitchen.

But free, or almost free, surplus gear comes with a cost of maintaining it, especially vehicles. And at least one government agency — the McHenry County government that holds the sheriff’s office’s purse strings — is contemplating changing its policies to have a say in the matter.

Bargain prices

Congress created the LESO program in the early 1990s to transfer excess Department of Defense equipment for use in drug enforcement activities. Congress expanded the program in 1997 to allow departments to acquire equipment for general law enforcement purposes.

Critics have blamed the program, along with drug asset forfeiture laws that allow small police departments to afford and maintain SWAT teams and specialized gear, for what they call the ongoing “militarization” of America’s law enforcement. Dressing and equipping police officers like soldiers makes them act like soldiers, they argue, and they point most recently to the crackdown on protesters following the police shooting of an African-American teenager in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb.

Surplus is tracked by two categories: tactical gear such as guns, armored vehicles and night vision equipment; and general issue, meaning everything else. The Defense Logistics Agency that administers the LESO program tracks battle gear for as long as a police department has it – if a police department doesn’t want it anymore, it has to give it back. While general issue can be tracked to individual departments, it is only kept on the federal books for one year.

Illinois police departments now have more than $35.6 million in tactical issue on the books. As for general gear, departments in the past year or so acquired more than 28,000 pieces of issue worth $29.4 million.

Police departments in 13 counties, including McHenry, now have MRAPs. Most are in the service of counties with larger populations, such as the collar counties and those near Rockford and Springfield. But besides Spring Grove, the list also includes a police department in far southern Franklin County, which has 39,561 residents.

Departments in another seven counties have one or more smaller tactical wheeled vehicles or armored trucks, according to federal records. Three counties — Lake, Ogle and Stephenson — have acquired helicopters.

For some reason, bayonets are counted as general issue, despite the fact they are battlefield weapons that can be attached to military rifles to either deter or eviscerate an opponent. Nine Illinois police departments over the past year have acquired bayonets or “combat knives” under LESO. While the Joliet Police Department received 50 bayonets, the rest went to small downstate county and local departments. The department protecting the small town of Breese, population 4,221, received 14 bayonets, or one for each of its 12 officers plus a few spares. Ten went to the police department of Loami, population 804.

No thanks

While deadly, most of the military weapons given to state and local law enforcement are not top-of-the-line.

The 112 M-16 rifles given to county law enforcement agencies are a much older variant no longer used by the military. The 19 12-gauge shotguns received are more modern, but federal surplus also includes 14 older M-14 rifles and a dozen .45-caliber Colt 1911 handguns, which for 70 years were the sidearm of choice for the armed forces.

Ten of the M-16s were given years ago to the Crystal Lake Police Department, which then had its own SWAT team, Deputy Chief Derek Hyrkas said. But the surplus weapons are no longer used. For its individual officers, the department purchased its own AR-15s, a modern variant of the M-16. What’s more, the department earlier this year disbanded its SWAT team and joined the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, a cooperative agency that fields its own team.

The department does not partake in acquiring other military surplus, Hyrkas said. Neither does the Algonquin Police Department, Chief Russ Laine said. He has not sought out surplus in his 29 years as chief.

“There was never an item that we felt we needed,” Laine said.

While Hyrkas defended the need for individual officers to have access to high-powered and accurate weapons like the AR-15, he said the department is in the process of returning the unused M-16s back to the government through LESO.

“There’s always a balance between how people would view us as too aggressive with equipment. But you see school shootings and workplace shootings where people come in with advanced weaponry. We want to protect our officers and protect people from those who would go out and do other people harm,” Hyrkas said.

Hidden costs

The mobile Humvee weather station that the sheriff’s office got for the Emergency Management Agency can’t forecast anything. All of the meteorological equipment has been stripped from it.

Agency Director David Christensen is well aware of that. He didn’t need the forecasting equipment. He needed the Humvee because it’s equipped to tow other wheeled vehicles, and he needs a way to tow his agency’s two command trailers and large emergency generators to keep critical facilities powered in the event of a prolonged outage.

Given that recent disasters have included floods, Christensen said a military vehicle could prove useful.

“What we learned in the [2013] floods was that it was hard to get around, and this will allow us to get [into a disaster area] a little further than we could,” Christensen said.

Christensen said the agency’s vehicle fleet is still smaller than it was when he took the reins three years ago. He most recently got rid of the agency’s command vehicle, which was rarely used, expensive to maintain, and increasingly irrelevant given advances in first-responder communications.

But the new Humvee, like the sheriff’s office’s acquisition of an MRAP and other vehicles, could end up causing county government a budget headache.

The Humvee’s desert tan paint job, like that of the SWAT team’s new MRAP, needs to be painted over. Emergency management put in a supplemental funding request to county staff because the department has no budget line item for such work.

The sheriff’s office does, because it has a garage and maintains a fleet of vehicles. But while acquiring MRAPs only cost the sheriff’s office and the Spring Grove Police Department a respective $1,975 and $4,000, there will be costs to their respective governments to convert them from battlefield to domestic law enforcement use, such as new paint, graphics, and installing lights.

And of course, there’s the cost of insurance and maintenance.

This presents a quandary for county government — while the sheriff’s office has a vehicle budget, vehicle and liability insurance is handled by one fund for all departments, Associate County Administrator for Finance Ralph Sarbaugh said. Besides the MRAPs and the Humvees, the sheriff’s office has obtained for itself three ATVs, a Kawasaki Mule, and four motorcycles, records show. It acquired a semitrailer for the Division of Transportation, three motorcycles for the Conservation District, and two vans for building operations.

“It adds cost to the overall budget. There are now more fuel and maintenance costs, they all have to be on the automobile or equipment insurance, and some of that gets to be quite expensive,” Sarbaugh said.

The county’s proposed budget policy, updated every year, now contains a recommendation by Sarbaugh that any acquisition of government surplus require County Board approval if it will result in additional costs for maintenance, fuel, insurance, storage, tracking and training. The County Board has not yet taken up the budget policy for a vote.

“The County Board is responsible for all facilities and equipment of the county, and even though it’s free, it’s not free,” Sarbaugh said.

Eisenberg, the Spring Grove village president, said that Chief Sanders’ goal in acquiring surplus has been to help the village obtain needed goods at discount, not to militarize his police force of 14 full- and part-time officers.

“If they’re willing to give it away, he’s willing to find a use for it,” Eisenberg said.

That being said, Eisenberg added that he will ask the board’s Safety Committee to look into the cost of maintaining and operating surplus, and specifically what the goal of the police department is with respect to the MRAP.

“If it’s something that’s going to be a parade monument … [finances] are very tight. Things may be free, but what’s the long-term cost?” Eisenberg said.

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