I-Team 8

Falling revenues could force more police departments into surplus military equipment program

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Military equipment has been used by police throughout Indiana, and some of that equipment includes vehicles designed to survive land mine explosions. The use of the equipment has been debated by some as calls to demilitarize police departments continue.

Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen has two former military vehicles in his fleet. The last time News 8 saw one in action was during a standoff in a corn field with an armed man. Sheriff deputies were protected inside the vehicle while negotiating with the suspect. That vehicle is more than 20 years old and is being retired. The new one is not ready for local police duty just yet.

“These particular vehicles, our MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) or armored personnel carrier is all it is used for, there is no military weapons mounted on them, there is no fully automatic weapons that are on them whatsoever, these are used as rescue vehicles and to safely transport our personnel to and from a scene and that is the key to keep our people safe,” said Nielsen. “They are fully decommissioned, they are demilitarized. We can’t take the bomb resistant metal off the bottom so we get what we get but they will stop up to a 50-caliber round.”

The program that supplies surplus military equipment to police is called the Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO for short. It started in the early 90s to support local police with drug enforcement efforts.

President Barack Obama partially suspended the program while he was in office. President Donald Trump returned it to full operation.

The equipment is free to local police and is not limited to vehicles. Indiana police departments have received more than 700 Colt 45 handguns, 2,600 rifles, a few helicopters, rifle scopes, Humvees, computers, communication equipment and the list goes on and on. The Boone County Sheriff’s Office has used the program for pistols their budget didn’t cover.

“I can tell you that most of the deputies had one of those at one point in time because we just couldn’t afford new weapons for everybody and that is really what the benefit is for this particular program,” said Nielsen.

Since the program’s inception, Indiana police departments have received more than 13,000 items from the military. Many of the items you will never see on day-to-day police officers on patrol.

Dr. Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University School of Justice, has spent his career studying the militarization of police departments. He says many of the recent protests that evolved into riots are directly related to a policing model that places fully militarized officers right alongside other officers.

“That’s really provocative. That really sends a powerful signal to those peaceful protests that this is a volatile situation and yes it certainly makes some people walk away and leave but it also amps up other types of people,” said Kraska.

The riots in Indianapolis and across the country following the death of George Floyd sparked the new debate on defunding the police. Dr. Kraska warns that may be a double-edged sword.

“Defunding police is not going to make them less dangerous, defanging the police through funds is not going to make them less militarized or less mean-spirited when it comes to protests. It is pretty naive to think that taking away their funds is going to change their culture, because what we have today is a cultural problem in policing like we have never seen before,” said Kraska.

Sheriff Nielson says police departments will face unprecedented budget cuts due to the pandemic, with fewer people working and paying taxes. It may force some departments, including his own to use the LESO program even more.

“We have got to look at how we can fund it so yeah we maybe looking at how the LESO program in the future can assist us better today and in the future I think it is going to be important for us to explore all of our options to save those taxpayers the money out there,” said Nielsen

The equipment from this program is technically on loan to police departments. The military can ask for it back at any time and departments are not allowed to sell or get rid of anything. The military conducts regular audits to make sure equipment is where it is supposed to be, and more than a few police departments have sent items back because the paperwork is such a hassle.