CINCINNATI – The largest local police agency is conspicuously missing from a list of departments that have received surplus military gear from the government: Cincinnati police.
Records obtained by WCPO from the Ohio Department of Public Safety, show that nearly 65,000 tactical and non-tactical military-grade items were given to 549 Ohio agencies since 1995. Local police departments can apply for military equipment — including guns, armored personnel carriers as well as more mundane items like desks and file cabinets—under U.S. Department of Defense Program 1033. That program was authorized in 1990 to help local police agencies combat drug trafficking. It was subsequently broadened in the mid-1990s and escalated after 9/11 to fight terrorism.
Specifically, the Defense Department started the excess supply program as it was bringing gear from Desert Storm back to the states in 1991. The federal program has come under scrutiny since police in Ferguson, Mo., used surplus military equipment in clashes with protesters.
Large, urban police departments such as Columbus and Cleveland, and rural departments such as the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, received gear ranging from steam pressure cleaners to brassieres to mine resistant vehicles. Roughly $66 million in equipment has been distributed throughout the state, according to agency-specific itemized records obtained by WCPO.
“It’s really a basic and simple program,” said Craig Batzer, the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s law enforcement support officer, who manages requests from local agencies, inventory and applications. “The taxpayers paid for (the equipment), and we are re-purposing the property; that way the taxpayer is not buying it a second time (on a local level).”
As for Cincinnati police, top commanders have long believed military-grade equipment is unnecessary in urban policing.
Executive Assistant Chief Paul Humphries said the department has long thought it doesn't need mine resistant vehicles and machine guns.
“We don’t need rocket launchers and grenades, although it is a valuable program for us to look into,” said Humphries, the commander of the support bureau, which oversees equipment needs and purchases.
Much of the equipment Humphries said has seen distributed to other agencies is for use in natural disaster rescues and dangerous terrain, and he agreed that for those purposes, it would be good to have heavy-duty equipment.
“Just because the military is getting rid of something, we’re not going to get jump on it,” Humphries said.
He also mentioned that while the equipment is provided to local agencies at no cost, it is the responsibility of the local agency to pick up the gear, possibly retrofit it for their needs, train officers on how to use it and maintain the equipment, all of which takes money and resources, he said.
There are no tanks available for distribution in the program, Batzer said.
“Once the agency is awarded property, it’s their responsibility to receive the property from wherever it is,” Batzer said.
Assistant Cincinnati Police Chief David Bailey, head of the criminal investigations bureau, said he recollects receiving about a dozen gas masks within the last 10 years, but they were in poor shape and it would have required the department “to put some money into them to bring them up to standard.”
Cincinnati police has also not participated in a companion Army program, called 1122. The program allows for police agencies to buy phased-out military equipment. Batzer’s office also oversees coordination of 1122, and said there is no record of Cincinnati police purchasing equipment through the program, either.
States have the option to participate in the program, Batzer said.
In Ohio, agencies are allowed to search inventory and make requests and provide justification for the equipment. Batzer’s office then forwards a recommendation of approval to the Department of Defense Logistics Agency, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, for approval.
Small police departments have been beneficiaries of the program, too.
For instance, the Elmwood Place Police Department, an agency serving roughly 2,000 residents, received a personnel carrier valued at $244,844 in September 2003, records show. The Blue Ash Police Department received 11 5.56 millimeter M-16 A1 rifles, valued at $499 each in August 2006.
“The main thing is that it’s a major cost savings to law enforcement, and probably provides equipment that small departments would otherwise not be able to afford,” Batzer said.
The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, under the tenure of former Sheriff Simon Leis, was one of the first police agencies to receive equipment through the program. It received a personnel carrier in September 2000, which has never been used, said Mike Robison, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.
“It was meant to be used by the SWAT team, and by the time they got it in place, they were able to secure funding through Homeland Security to purchase much more practical vehicles and things that they use on a regular basis.”
No one at the sheriff’s office provided a reason for why they needed a vehicle, but Robison said Leis might have thought it was useful for the SWAT team. Today, it sits “in the back of a garage somewhere in patrol headquarters storage,” Robison said.
Current Sheriff Jim Neil is trying to determine a practical way to use the vehicle or dispose of it, Robison said. To dispose of any tactical-grade equipment, it either must be returned to Department of Defense or sent to another authorized police agency, Batzer said.
The vast majority of the gear is not weaponry as 88 percent of the equipment distributed in Ohio since 1995 is non-tactical, Batzer said.
For instance, the Oxford Police Department received 225 chemiluminescent lights in June, which are essentially light sticks that produce light through a chemical reaction that does not produce heat.
The Lincoln Heights Police Department received two universal forensic extraction devices, valued at $7,499 each.
Authorities say a combination of squeezed budgets and free equipment makes acquiring the equipment an easy decision but the American Civil Liberties Union argues that the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a “warrior” mentality.
The ACLU also argues that the training results in a police mentality that of “the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flash-bang grenades and armored personnel carriers,” according to its June 2014 report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.”
In the ACLU’s study, SWAT teams were more than twice as likely to force entry into a person’s home when searching for drugs than for other deployments.
WCPO data specialist Mark Nichols analyzed and summarized the data for this report.