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Local Police Stockpile Weapons Of War

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Photo: Video by NewsChannel5.com

Local Police Stockpile Weapons Of War

By Ben Hall. CREATED Jul 17, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A massive military build-up is underway right here in Tennessee.

Local law enforcement agencies are snatching up huge amounts of weapons -- from the Department of Defense -- used in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Items include grenade launchers, mine-resistant vehicles and guns that have been deemed as surplus by the Pentagon.

The equipment is cheap or free for local law enforcement agencies to acquire.

The federal program has fueled a debate about the militarization of our police departments.

McMinn County is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It boasts beautiful scenery, but its sheriff's department can boast something else.

The department received more military surplus guns than any other local department in the state last year.

"We actually reconfigured the whole armory to accommodate all of this," said Sheriff Joe Guy.

Sheriff Guy oversees 31 officers and investigators, but his department received 161 army rifles and pistols, including 71 M16 rifles and 71 .45-caliber pistols.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Why does your department need all these guns?"

Sheriff Guy responded, "Well, we don't need this many. There was a little error in the order."

The Sheriff said the Army surplus program doubled his initial order, but he hasn't sent the guns back.

"They're here as our department grows. We'll have additional firearms for future officers," Sheriff Guy said.

McMinn County is not alone.

A spreadsheet obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates shows thousands of pieces of military equipment going to Tennessee law enforcement agencies.

Equipment used to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is now going to local departments.

"The way this stuff is being distributed, it's kind of reckless," said author Radley Balko.

He has written a book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, that raises concerns about militarization of American police departments.

"What we've seen is just a massive transfer of gear, guns, vehicles and other weaponry," Balko said.

Law enforcement agencies can go to a website administered by the Department of Defense and look for used equipment.

On the day we went to McMinn County, the department was looking for Humvees. Sheriff Guy reviewed what was available.

"It looks good," Sheriff Guy said to an employee who was looking up a vehicle on-line.

The employee responded, "It's got 14-hundred miles on it."

"How many of those did you put in for?" Sheriff Guy asked.

"Three," his employee answered.

Sheriff Guy responded, "Three of those and one truck."

Departments pay a registration fee, then all the equipment is free. Individual departments must pay for transportation and maintenance.

"The disbursement across the country is so uneven and random and sort of based on who is good at manipulating the system," Balko said.

Thirty Tennessee departments just received mine-resistant vehicles. They were designed to protect soldiers from road side bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lebanon Public Safety, La Vergne and Hendersonville Police Departments all received MRAPS.

"This is our newest armored protective vehicle," said Mike Justice with Lebanon Public Safety.

Justice hopes Lebanon police officers never use it.

"The situations we would use this vehicle in is hostage negotiations, putting this vehicle between the bad guy and the good guys," Justice said.

He said the surplus program is critical to smaller departments. It provides equipment is not just military in nature including trucks, lawn mowers and tents.

Many small departments could not afford them on their own.

"As a taxpayer, I paid for it the first time. When I paid my federal income tax, I paid for this vehicle. So the citizens of Lebanon now get the benefit from it," Justice said standing beside the MRAP.

But Balko said the militarization of police departments comes at a price, like more SWAT raids.

"What we've done is encourage the police to become more like the military," Balko said.

"When you surround yourself with the weapons of war, with the language of war, you're going to be much less likely to look for ways of resolving disputes using the least amount of force possible," Balko continued.

Our investigation also found some departments can't keep up with the weapons they're getting.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported two M14s missing last year.

A TWRA park ranger had an M16 stolen from his vehicle -- it was later recovered.

And at the tiny Bean Station Police Department in East Tennessee, the police chief's son took an M16 from the program and was arrested for impersonating a police officer.

"It's concerning that this stuff is getting lost or stolen because I think it again indicates how little monitoring the Pentagon is doing once this stuff gets out of their reach," Balko said.

Sheriff Guy keeps his guns locked up and knows where each one is.

But for some, a department with five times more guns than patrol officers raises questions about the military surplus program.

"There was never any sort of public debate on this, or public discourse. It all sort of happened under the radar, and I think that's concerning," Balko said.

Late Thursday, the Department of General Services told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that it has suspended the state coordinator of the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO).

Elbert Baker is on administrative leave with pay. The Department of General Services stated it discovered that it had given inaccurate and incomplete information to NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

We had asked for documentation involving missing weapons in the LESO program.

The state has alerted its auditors and is conducting a review of LESO files, records and internal controls, a spokesperson said. The auditors have notified the comptroller's office they are investigating a possible internal deficiency.

Finally, the Department of General Services expressed thanks to NewsChannel 5 Investigates for bringing "to light a record-keeping deficiency of which our department was previously unaware."

Ben Hall

Ben Hall

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Ben Hall is a veteran reporter at NewsChannel 5. He has covered the state legislature, presidential campaigns and is presently part of NewsChannel 5's award-winning investigative unit.