New Mexico officials say surplus military gear key to cash-strapped agencies

A robot acquired by the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office through the U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 program. Courtesy photo

Last June, the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office got a report about a 60-year-old man who had barricaded himself inside his Las Cruces home.

The man had been fighting with his son, who left to seek help. When the son returned to the house with a sheriff’s deputy, his father fired a shot through the front door, and the deputy called for backup.

The sheriff’s office dispatched a robot equipped with audio and video communication capabilities to negotiate with the man.

The negotiations failed and the standoff ended in a fiery explosion and the death of the suspect. But no officers were injured.

Kelly Jameson, the department’s spokeswoman, said the robot is just one of a number of items acquired by the agency under the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which supplies surplus military gear to state and local law enforcement agencies, including many in New Mexico.

“It’s a very lucrative program for us,” Jameson said. “Historically, we see our budget shrinking. We have to be very creative in how we can access better equipment from other sources.”

The program has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by police in Ferguson, Mo. Images of heavily armed police atop military vehicles with machine guns inflamed tensions in the St. Louis suburb and stoked national debate over whether the program has turned civilian police departments into gung-ho military units.

A recent editorial cartoon shows Andy Griffith and Barney Fife of The Andy Griffith Show television series alongside modern-day counterparts in full combat gear.

The controversy has prompted President Barack Obama to order a review of the program.

But even before Ferguson, reports of SWAT teams being deployed to serve ordinary warrants raised concerns about the Pentagon initiative.

At the same time, law enforcement officials in cash-strapped communities across the country say the program has been a boon, supplying them with equipment far beyond the armored vehicles and assault weapons that have caused such a stir.

The program began in the 1990s as part of an initiative to help local law enforcement agencies in drug enforcement efforts. But with two long-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the level of equipment available — including mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs — has become increasingly ominous. The program gives local police forces equipment on a permanent loan basis at no cost except for shipping and maintenance.

Since 2006, New Mexico has received more than $25 million worth of equipment. Florida, at $252 million, and Alaska, with $117 million, received the most. Texas was next with $93 million worth of equipment, according to an analysis by The New Mexican of Department of Defense data. The New York Times received the raw data through a records request and released it publicly.

New Mexico has received 20 MRAPS worth $13.5 million total. Only Texas, Florida, California and Oklahoma received more. New Mexico also has received three helicopters with a combined value of $1.1 million, dozens of Humvees and other armored vehicles worth $3.3 million, and 93 night-vision sniper scopes worth $465,000.

But for every piece of military-style equipment, various law enforcement agencies in the state have ordered hundreds of items of the more generic sort, including sleeping bags, tents, cargo vans, generators, all-terrain vehicles, portable buildings and forklifts. One agency even received a 40-inch TV.

The state’s Department of Public Safety serves as a liaison between the Pentagon and local police agencies. New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said the program saves taxpayers money, allowing agencies, including state police, to use the savings to hire more officers, buy more patrol cars and other priorities.

Kassetas said the images coming out of Ferguson sent the wrong message about police and their role as peacekeepers, and served to incite rather than calm the protesters.

In New Mexico, he said, the Department of Public Safety doesn’t allow local agencies to order firearms from the 1033 program, except for use in training. “I’m very sensitive on how this equipment is used and when it’s used,” Kassetas said.

The state police received an MRAP last September, and the agency has used it twice since then, Kassetas said.

Some criminologists question the public safety value of the program and worry that it can make people fear police rather than trust them. Tom Nolan, associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said military vehicles used in local police procedures can create the sense that the city is a war zone.

“If I see [an armored vehicle] driving down a residential area, even if it’s to approach a suspect, I’m going to think that I’m not safe,” said Nolan, a 27-year veteran with the Boston Police Department.

Kassetas said law enforcement agencies should take advantage of the program to apply for equipment that can help keep officers safe. “If I order my men to go into harm’s way, I’ll gladly wrap my guys around steel when there’s an active shooting suspect,” he said.

He said the state police agency has ordered some Humvees for use in search-and-rescue situations, but “we’re certainly not going to patrol highways in Humvees or MRAPs.”

Some of the equipment acquired through the program has never been put to use. In a warehouse on the south side of Santa Fe, a black armored vehicle has sat idly collecting dust for five years. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office obtained the $200,000 vehicle, known as a Peacekeeper, from the Department of Defense to use in SWAT situations, but the agency’s mechanics were never able to fix the engine, said Capt. Adan Mendoza of the sheriff’s office.

Instead, the office’s SWAT team depends on the Santa Fe Police Department’s armored vehicle, a BearCat. Mendoza said the sheriff’s office does not have the money to buy its own armored vehicle, which is why it had applied for the Peacekeeper through the 1033 loan program.

Santa Fe police spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said the department, which already had an armored vehicle, ordered a $658,000 MRAP last year, but it is sitting in a warehouse because repairing it is not a high priority.

Various law enforcement agencies in Doña Ana County have received about $14.6 million worth of equipment between 2006 and 2014, according to Department of Defense data, including trucks, vans, rucksacks, rifles, combat boots, bayonets, coveralls and one MRAP valued at $733,000.

Jameson said the sheriff’s office regularly receives lists of what is available. Recently, the office scored a pallet of hand sanitizer. Deputies, she said, don’t always have access to restrooms, and “that was something we saw a need for.”

She said the sheriff’s office has never asked for an MRAP. It would be nice to have a helicopter, she added, “but we couldn’t afford to put a pilot on the payroll.”

The agency has obtained some inoperable vehicles that deputies have blown up during training, portable outdoor lighting used in nighttime exercises and military netting that the bomb squad has used to provide shade in the field.

Three agencies in San Juan County, including the sheriff’s office, received MRAPs under the 1033 program.

San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said, “A lot of this equipment is very needed. We can’t afford to buy armor, but occasionally we have to do some things that require it. Otherwise, we’re going to get people killed.”

The vehicles are especially useful in rescue situations, he said. “Let’s say you had a shooting in which someone was wounded and someone had barricaded themselves and you have to get there to render aid. You have to go up with a vehicle that will at least stop a bullet. That’s important. A high-powered rifle will go through a vehicle. And our vests don’t stop that.”

An armored vehicle is especially useful in rural San Juan County, Christesen added, because, “You might have to drive a half-mile while getting shot at to help someone. We want to keep our people safe.”

Maintaining the MRAP is not difficult, he said, because “it’s just a big truck. That’s all it is. It has armor on it and it will stop bullets.”

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office also has two helicopters obtained through the 1033 program. The department has a certified mechanic to maintain the aircraft and three certified pilots.

Christesen said the department does not acquire rifles because “we want to make sure we’re not presenting ourselves like the military.”

And the MRAP stays put until there’s a SWAT situation. “We don’t try to go out and project this military style,” Christesen said. “We want to make sure people can talk to us. We have to be responsible and approachable. That’s a big thing.”

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com and Uriel Garcia at 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com.