By Karina Ioffee
Law enforcement agencies throughout the Bay Area have received more than $14 million dollars worth of decommissioned military equipment, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and an 85-foot speed boat armed with machine guns, records show.
The acquisitions by local agencies include a $4.4 million fast patrol boat, given to the Alameda County Sheriff’s office in 2005 to patrol the waterways around the Port of Oakland, a $685,000 mine resistant vehicle for the Antioch Police Department and an armored vehicle known as the MAMBA, which can withstand land mines and IEDs, for the city of Concord.
The acquisitions are part of the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which since 1995 has given more than $5 billion worth of military surplus to police agencies across the country. Although the program has been in place for nearly two decades, information about what individual police agencies received was made available for first time last week by the California Office of Emergency Services, which oversees the program in the state.
The data was released amid growing concern over the militarization of local police departments in the wake of a shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and a strong law enforcement response to the protests that followed.
Many agencies have defended acquiring the items as highly useful considering many departments could not afford them on their own. The departments receive equipment free of charge from the Department of Defense, though they do have to pay for the items to be delivered to them.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office uses the fast patrol boat both to protect the Port of Oakland and to assist other law enforcement agencies along the coast from Monterey to Oregon, a department spokesman said. A current employee is trained to perform maintenance on the boat, though the boat is not sent out on patrol every day, keeping repair and fuel costs down, he added.
Asked why Antioch police needed a mine-resistant personnel carrier weighing more than 30,000 pounds, Antioch police Captain Leonard Orman said the vehicle was critical to the department’s ability to protect officers during a natural disaster or in incidents that require a SWAT team.
“It’s a defensive vehicle that provides the ability to be protected from gunfire, including high-powered rifles,” Orman said. “If someone is barricaded in a home and there is an injured person on the ground, we can use it to rescue the person without exposing ourselves to fire.”
Orman said that Antioch police have not had occasion to use the vehicle, which was deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, since they took custody of it in December.
UC Berkeley’s police department used the 1033 program to request about a dozen M-16 rifles, which it said would give officers firepower equal to that held by some of the criminals they encounter, said Lt. Eric Tejada, a department spokesman.
“We feel that those specialists need to have a rifle that’s capable of dealing with some incidents that can involve the modern-day weapons that you see now,” Tejada said. “It’s smart for us to utilize the resources that you can get for free.”
In suburban Contra Costa County, Hercules police have access to an armored personnel carrier that so far has only been used in city parades and other civic events, but not in police action, Reserve Detective Connie Van Putten, a police spokeswoman, said. Officers have been trained to use the military-style vehicle for rescue operations or in the event of an active shooter.
“Fortunately we haven’t had to use it in that rescue manner but we have had situations I’m told where we felt it would have been a useful tool and considered a useful tool now,” Van Putten said. “Everything we have is used for the defense of our community and our police officers.”
Despite the program’s popularity, some departments are deciding the negative perception of the military equipment outweighs the benefits. Last month, the city of San Jose decided to return a 15-ton military transport vehicle, also known as an MRAP, acquired from the Department of Defense, after critics wondered why the urban city department needed such a massive machine.
“We’ve been going through the analysis process,” said San Jose police spokeswoman Sgt. Heather Randol. “It is a useful tool, but we realize it could be viewed by the community as the militarization of SJPD. It could create a divide, and we want the community’s trust.”
“Symbol matters,” said Davis Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis after that city’s department decided to send back a similar vehicle. “We are a species that uses symbol, and this symbolizes the most destructive force on the planet, which is the U.S. Army.”
The 1033 program is just one of several ways law enforcement agencies have received big-ticket items that would otherwise not be affordable for many. Another, more widely used program, is the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative, has supplied hundreds of millions worth of equipment, including Bearcat vehicles, speedboats and other items.
Staff writers Daniel J. Willis, Natalie Alund, Rick Hurd and David Debolt contributed to this story. Contact Karina Ioffee at 925-945-4782. Follow her at Twitter.com/kioffee