WASHINGTON - The Defense Department is giving away free equipment the military no longer needs to state and local police: fatigues for secret surveillance of drug labs in Indiana, a tranquilizer gun to shoot bears in Pennsylvania and a doublewide trailer in Virginia.
Cash-strapped law enforcement agencies are lining up to take advantage of the Pentagon's generosity. About 16,000 departments obtained more than 380,000 pieces of equipment in the 2005 budget year, according to an analysis of data provided by the Pentagon at the request of The Associated Press.
The items, which include night-vision goggles, copy machines, helicopters and bulletproof vests, were worth nearly $124 million.
Authorities in Bucks County, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, turned to the Pentagon for two hand-me-down armored vehicles to protect officers in hostage standoffs. The total savings to local taxpayers: more than $70,000 a piece.
The top recipients nationwide are:
-California, $17 million worth of equipment.
-Indiana, $10.5 million worth of items.
-North Carolina, $10 million worth.
Detectives on a drug task force in Tippecanoe County, Ind., wear military fatigues for covert surveillance of methamphetamine cooks and cocaine dealers. In Pennsylvania, the state game commission uses a tranquilizer gun to put tracking collars on bears. In Covina, Calif., police converted a military ambulance into a SWAT team vehicle.
Police describe the free equipment as a godsend.
The program is administered by the Defense Logistic Agency. Police pay only to ship the equipment and for necessary upgrades. The military gives away only items it considers obsolete for its own use, parts that already have been replaced or are no longer needed in places such as Iraq.
"We've gotten unbelievable stuff," said police Sgt. Jim Forbes in Hampton, Va. "It's benefiting a whole lot of folks in this business."
Last year, Forbes' department obtained 55 patrol rifles and paid only a few hundred dollars for shipping. Over the years, his department has received boats and even a doublewide trailer it uses as a training room on a range.
Some states have soured on what they describe as bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the Pentagon since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Wyoming closed its coordinator's office more than two years ago because it cost more money to operate than the value of the equipment it received, said Gayleen Wyant, the surplus property manager there.
"They're not making it easy for states to go and pick up their surplus," she said. "The paperwork and everything is enormous. It's just not flowing like it used to."
Other states appear more appreciative.
The 1960s-era armored vehicles given to Bucks County only needed paint and fresh batteries. The final cost was less than the $80,000 each would cost new, said Scott Pepperman, chief of the state's Federal Surplus and Law Enforcement Property Division.
The armored vehicles are used in standoffs and hostage situations.
"If you're in your office and barricaded, and one of these things pulls up in your front lawn, it's very intimidating," said Lt. Michael Clark of the Northampton Township Police Department in Bucks County.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the military gave away free parkas, riot helmets, boots, night vision goggles, a tractor, dump trucks and back hoes.
In Alabama, a sheriff's department near Birmingham received four 1970s-era helicopters. It cannibalized two for parts and already has a third in the air.
"We went to (the) bargain basement," Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale said.
New helicopters would have cost taxpayers $800,000 each, said Hale, who figures his department will have two air-worthy helicopters for only a fraction of that amount. He intends to use them to chase criminals and perform surveillance of the local airport and water plants.
"If your agency can afford it, it's probably the easiest thing to spend $1 million and buy one," Hale said. Still, he added, "The product we put out is a first-class helicopter."
The Defense Department's giveaway program started in 1990 to transfer surplus military parts to police for anti-drug and anti-terrorism work. Its mission was later broadened.
Associated Press writers Sharon Theimer in Washington and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.
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