Small departments get large amounts. How much is being sold?

The federal Law Enforcement Support Office’s 1033 program, which provides military surplus items to law enforcement agencies, is well-intended but flawed: law enforcement agencies can make big money selling the surplus equipment and no oversight is required.

LESO gained national notoriety in 2014 when police responded to protests in Ferguson, Mo., with military-grade weapons and armored vehicles.

In late 2017, Delaware’s participation came under scrutiny for a different reason: off-budget buying by the Dewey Beach Police Department. A dispute between the police department and town manager’s office resulted in a September report that revealed the police department sold off free surplus equipment and bought police vehicles with the money.

While federal program audits in 2015 and 2017 satisfied the feds that state agencies were, mostly, operating within the program’s guidelines, the agreement between Delaware and the Defense Logistics Agency is clear: police must not ask for equipment with the idea of selling, trading, bolstering a budget or using the surplus as loan collateral.

So-called controlled property, including weapons, accessories and military-grade vehicles and gear, remain property of the federal government, but title to other surplus property -- from bulldozers to blankets -- is turned over to police agencies after they have been held for one year. After that, each department can sell, trade or give away uncontrolled property that it has received from the feds.

State police suspension

The Delaware 2017 LESO audit, obtained through a FOIA request, showed “DE State Police traded forty-one (41) reflex sights to the manufacturer without State approval.” Scopes are controlled property, so that isn’t allowed.

In response, the state police claimed someone “misunderstood/misread” the State Plan of Operations, an agreement that all participating agencies sign.

Small arms and accessories are controlled equipment continuously monitored by DEMA and LESO and can never be sold or given away, only returned to the federal government.

DEMA Director A.J. Schall, the state’s LESO coordinator, said in an interview that the state police got a 60-day suspension from the federal program. During that time they could not request any equipment.

 “They had some sights they had traded in and gotten a credit with the vendor,” Schall said. DEMA allowed the DSP to exchange them for a different type.

“They didn’t do something illegal or for personal gain,” he said. “We’re not going to kick them out of the program for their first offense.”

Hyperactive participants

Dewey Beach is the state’s third most active participant, going by the number of line items obtained between 2013 and 2017. The DBPD obtained 506 items. First and second place go to police departments in Harrington (1,128 items) and Laurel (895 items), all based on records supplied by the DLA.

Harrington Police Chief Norman Barlow said the program has been very helpful, allowing his department to outfit an entire gym. The Harrington PD has, like Dewey Beach, sold LESO items and used the cash to benefit the department. Barlow did not elaborate on those benefits, nor is he required to account for the sales by any government agency.

The Georgetown Police Department hasn’t asked for anything since 2015.

In the past, the department sold construction equipment, generators, golf carts and a vehicle, said Officer Joey Melvin.

 “Proceeds … were used to offset police department renovations and install cameras at various locations throughout town,” he said.

Other police departments have asked for and gotten little, like Middletown and Smyrna.

These towns have barely taken advantage of the program. Middletown Chief of Police Michael Iglio responded promptly to a November FOIA request for Middletown’s 2013-17 inventory: nine rifles, and over five years it got some flat panel monitors, coveralls, and a “tall rack.”

Smyrna’s inventory records over the same time show six rifles, two sets of night-vision goggles, a Humvee and a pair of ballistic (Kevlar) blankets. It also got three exercise machines.

The Smyrna department has not sold or given away any equipment. “No. Absolutely not,” said Lt. Torrie James, who said he has been the department’s LESO contact for four years. “We don’t do that stuff.”

The exercise equipment is in the police headquarters gym. “It’s a great resource to have,” he said. “If we ask for something it’s because we need it.”

The Milford Police Department has had a mine-resistant vehicle since 2013. The behemoth armored truck is stored at Milford’s old armory, and DEMA has no plans to ask police to return it.

“It’s equipment you don’t want to have to use but want a law enforcement agency to have in case they need it,” Schall said. “It could be needed for an active-shooter type situation, or to get law enforcement into an area under fire.”

By contrast, when the Frankford Police Department dissolved, their LESO surplus was locked away, except for controlled property: goggles and a Humvee. These went to Dewey Beach. The goggles were returned to the LESO depot. The truck is inoperable.

Weakly monitored

DEMA officials don’t track what happens to non-controlled gear that falls off the annual inventory. They said they have become aware of sales after it was revealed the Dewey police sold over $120,000 worth of equipment – identified through FOIA requests for bank statements and auction records -- over several years and turned the cash into a pair of police-equipped SUVs.

Dewey Beach also traded a bulldozer for demolition work, but since federal title had lapsed, DEMA was unconcerned.

“This is stuff LESO wants to get rid of,” said DEMA’s Lester Hobbs. “And a lot of times it’s not in good condition.”

A leap in requests from Dewey’s police department, from about 25 line items in 2013 to over 200 in 2014 was not a red flag. “It’s not the volume but what they’re looking for” that is reviewed, Schall said, calling DEMA the “conduit” for requests.

Hobbs said LESO revises policies and procedures every few years, and they may address returning versus selling unused equipment.

“We don’t want this [program] to be an income stream for law enforcement agencies,” Schall said. “But we can’t make new policies. The DLA makes the policies.”

He suggested each police department’s city or town should develop a policy on surplus equipment. But DEMA itself isn’t required to report to anyone about statewide LESO activity.

Public in the dark

It would seem logical that statewide records would be held by, and available from, the office that administers LESO for the state.

DEMA has access to and frequently uses FEPMIS, the inventory and ordering database. Every request by any police agency is approved or rejected at the state level by a DEMA employee.

While Middletown supplied a screen shot of the FEPMIS inventory for 2013-17 in response to our FOIA letter, DEMA said it can’t. Dewey Beach, in response to another FOIA letter, supplied a paper printout with their FEPMIS inventory records over the same years.

Asked again about the FOIA refusal, Schall said a deputy attorney general advised them not to provide the documents because they weren’t modified by DEMA, but by the individual law enforcement agencies requesting equipment: “It’s nothing that we’re going to provide without asking her first.”