Some McHenry County agencies returning military surplus vehicles amid increased scrutiny

Surplus equipment had gone to non-law enforcement agencies in violation of rules

Several local governments that got vehicles under the previous McHenry County Sheriff’s administration through a controversial military surplus program for law enforcement had to give them back.

The reason is simple, according to the new sheriff: They never should have gotten them in the first place.

The department under former Sheriff Keith Nygren amassed a significant amount of equipment under the federal Law Enforcement Support Office – one 2014 report compiled by his office identified a worth of at least $2.47 million. It ranged from cold weather caps valued at $5.34 each to a $733,000, 40-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle for the sheriff’s SWAT team.

Surplus obtained under the previous sheriff was spread around to other agencies, as well.

The Huntley and Woodstock fire departments obtained Humvees from the sheriff’s office under the program, as did the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency. The Algonquin Township Highway Department and the McHenry County Division of Transportation both obtained semi-trailers. Three diesel motorcycles were passed off to the McHenry County Conservation District.

But the rules of the LESO program are simple, Sheriff Bill Prim said – surplus can only go to law enforcement agencies engaged in “bona fide” law enforcement work. Prim ordered a review of the department’s participation in LESO upon taking office in December 2014.

“There were items that were obtained by the [former] sheriff and distributed to agencies that violated the LESO agreement,” Prim said.

The sheriff’s office is one of thousands of law enforcement agencies that participate in LESO to get weapons and gear at little to no cost. But while lauded by law enforcement, the program has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Critics blame the program and others like it for contributing to what they allege is the ongoing “militarization” of police officers – equipping and dressing officers as soldiers, they argue, is making them act like soldiers rather than protectors of the community.

Abuse of the program also is an issue, most recently with the revelation that disgraced Fox Lake Police Lt. Joe Gliniewicz had for years been illegally obtaining piles of military surplus for the police youth program he mentored. He killed himself and staged it to like a homicide in September, just as the new village administrator had been demanding a full accounting of all the items he had obtained under the program.

Prim’s next steps were simple. He immediately contacted the Department of Defense and reported that non-LESO agencies had obtained surplus under the former sheriff. Then he contacted the local agencies in question and told them they had to give it back.

Under LESO rules, the sheriff’s office can keep the returned equipment for itself, transfer it to another LESO agency, or give it back to the Department of Defense.

Huntley fire’s Humvee and an ATV it received now serve the small police department of McCullom Lake. Humvees given to Woodstock fire and the Emergency Management Agency will stay with the sheriff’s office, as will an ATV forklift given to Algonquin Township.

The semitrailers given to the county and Algonquin Township highway departments are back with the sheriff’s office, and their disposition has yet to be determined, Prim said.

The motorcycles given to the conservation district were transferred to the Crystal Lake Park District Police – while the conservation district has a police force, it is not LESO accredited. Likewise, a handful of weapon sights and lights given to the Woodstock Police Department were returned because the department does not participate in LESO.

The state LESO office followed up with an audit, and the sheriff’s office got a clean final review Feb. 8 and can fully participate in the surplus program. But Prim said he has not ordered anything through it since taking office.

Prim said it gave him “cause for concern” that he and the county were put in this position in the first place by the distribution of vehicles to non-LESO agencies.

“I think it was irresponsible, and it placed the county in a position of unnecessary exposure,” Prim said.

The Fox Lake Police Department likewise got cleared after an audit from state and federal LESO representatives, state spokeswoman Meredith Krantz said. The police department retained its LESO accreditation in the wake of its changes in leadership and more stringent oversight – Gliniewicz had been the sole point of contact, hence his ability to illegally amass equipment.

The federal Defense Logistics Agency that administers LESO identified an unknown amount of items from Gliniewicz’s stash that must be returned, Krantz said.

Actions at the federal, state and local levels have made a dent in trying to increase accountability, or at the very least restrict access by law enforcement to certain battlefield equipment.

President Barack Obama last year signed an executive order forbidding federal agencies from giving police departments tracked armored vehicles; weaponized vehicles; and aircraft, bayonets, grenade launchers and several other tactical items. 

A bill codifying that order into state law, and requiring law enforcement to give public notice of everything it requests under LESO, is under review by the Illinois State Senate. Two states – Montana and New Jersey – have slapped on more stringent restrictions.

The McHenry County Board in 2014 passed a rule requiring board approval for the acquisition of any government surplus that would result in added fuel, insurance, storage, training or travel costs.

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