PHOENIX — A Pentagon agency that distributes free military surplus gear to about 12,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide suspended a portion of the program June 8, less than three weeks after The Arizona Republic spotlighted apparent program abuses at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Offices.
The Defense Logistics Agency announced that requisitions of firearms by police organizations have been halted pending review, and program coordinators in 49 states have been directed to verify the locations of equipment previously requisitioned under the so-called 1033 Program.
Kenneth MacNevin, a spokesman with the DLA Law Enforcement Support Office, told the Associated Press that the military decided to conduct a “clean sweep” of all state inventories in the aftermath of the Republic’s special report and in the face of parallel inquiries by the news service.
“Leadership decided to make sure we have a good, full accounting for all of this,” he said. “We’re not doing this based on any thought there’s a problem. We’re doing it because accountability is accountability.”
Last week, the agency announced that, in the wake of the Republic’s story, it was developing new policies and would be instituting a new accounting method to keep track of gear that law-enforcement agencies are able to requisition free. The week before that, it requested from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office an accounting of vehicles and other equipment that it lent to non-police organizations.
The distribution of unused military gear, known as DRMO, was authorized by Congress as a way to enhance U.S. policing and save tax dollars. During fiscal year 2011, the Pentagon distributed nearly $500 million worth of gear to law enforcement agencies. The program allows police to request items ranging from helicopters and Humvees to clothing, computers and firearms. However, program rules require agencies to use each item at least one year for a law-enforcement purpose. It also prohibits police departments from requisitioning gear for the purpose of selling items at a profit to balance budgets.
Last month, using documents and emails obtained via public records requests, The Republic documented that Sheriff Paul Babeu was requisitioning hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of military surplus and distributing items to non-law enforcement organizations. For example, the Sheriff’s Office provided a 5-ton truck, a Humvee and medical equipment to a for-profit ambulance company, and a $175,000 pumper truck to a fire department that serves customers on a subscription basis.
The newspaper also revealed that Babeu was obtaining materials for planned auctions, and told the Pinal County Board of Supervisors during a March meeting that he would help balance his budget by raising up to $500,000 in six months selling DRMO items.
Babeu’s office has obtained military merchandize with a value listed at $7 million in the past two years, mostly since an employee was placed in charge of approving requisitions for about 100 participating law-enforcement agencies in Arizona.
“The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office was audited seven months ago by the Department of Defense and were found to be in full compliance and today we are still in full compliance regarding our use of the 1033 program,” Tim Gaffney, director of communications and grants for the Sheriff’s Office, said Friday in a written statement. “This decision to temporarily suspend the issuance of weapons has nothing to do with us.”
In the past, Gaffney has said sheriff requisitions some items for “loan” to public safety partners. He contended that practice does not violate rules of the 1033 program, and is a benefit to the public. Gaffney also denied that Babeu was planning to supplement his budget by improperly selling DRMO items.
Critics of the Pinal County operation say doling out excess military community enables Babeu, who dropped out of a congressional race and is seeking re-election as sheriff, to curry political favor with community leaders. They also contend that the sheriff’s practices deprive other police agency of military gear that is legitimately needed for law enforcement.