August 11, 2013

Locals use military program for public safety needs

Some other departments have gotten musical instruments, pool tables

Charles Oliver

— Murray County Sheriff Gary Langford says it happens just about every year. Someone gets lost or hurt somewhere in the mountains. And winter weather can render some of the smaller roads difficult to pass.

“We had, I think, just one four-wheel drive vehicle,” he said.

But earlier this year, thanks to a U.S. Department of Defense program that supplies military surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies, the sheriff’s office acquired four four-wheel drive Humvees.

“This will give us the ability to go patrol in the county when it’s snowing, or go pick up nurses and get them to the hospital or help the ambulance service if they need it. It’s a real benefit to us,” Langford said.

Local law enforcement agencies just sign up for the program, and they are able to search online for any surplus equipment the military has available. And all of it is free.

“You just have to go get it. If it’s on an Army base in Florida, you have to go down there and get it,” Langford said.

Law enforcement agencies get to keep some of the equipment, but most of it has to be returned if an agency is no longer using it. A recent Associated Press story found that most of the equipment donated by the Defense Department since 1990 has gone to small, usually rural, law enforcement agencies.

Langford said the sheriff’s office wasn’t taking part in the program before he took office earlier this year but he thought it would provide the county with a way to get needed equipment without spending taxpayer dollars.

“All the supervisors and I discussed it and decided what we needed, then we started searching on the website for what was available,” he said.

The Associated Press found that law enforcement agencies have used the program to acquire everything from musical instruments to playground equipment to pool tables to a colonoscopy machine. But Langford said everything his department has acquired has a direct impact on public safety.

“We have, I think, 30 M-16 rifles and some shotguns. We also got a pontoon boat that we will use for rescue operations. If our dive team has to go out, now they have a boat to use,” he said.

When the rifles were acquired they were fully automatic, but Langford said they have been modified to make them semi-automatic. Deputies have to go through a special training program before they are issued the rifles.

“The only thing they had (before getting the rifles) was their service weapon, a Glock .40 caliber, and a shotgun,” he said. “But if they ran into a situation like a bank robbery or something and they (the culprits) were using an AK-47 or a high-powered rifle, our deputies would have been outmatched.”

The Murray County Sheriff’s Office is currently making the most use of the Defense Department program, but most local agencies have used the program at some point.

“Back in the mid to late 1990s, we got some used vehicles, heavy duty, four-wheel drive type vehicles,” said Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office Maj. John Gibson. “We used them for a few years. Then we acquired some four-wheel drive vehicles of our own and returned them.”

Gibson said the sheriff’s office has also used the program to acquire weapons and tactical gear. But he says it hasn’t acquired anything from the military for at least five or six years.

“Of course, with a couple of wars winding down, they’ll probably have more surplus equipment, so we’ll have to keep an eye out for anything we might be able to use,” he said.

Eton Police Chief Brent Hooper said his department has recently updated its status with the program. But he said it has been many years since it got anything from it.

“We got a vehicle, a four-wheel drive Blazer. I can’t recall exactly how long ago that was, but it has been years,” he said.

Tunnel Hill Police Chief Roy Brunson said his department used the program to acquire a generator as well as a pickup truck and an SUV.

“But we haven’t gotten anything in 18 months, maybe longer,” he said.

Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant said his department is registered with the program but it has been “many years” since they acquired anything.

“I couldn’t even recall what it was if we did get anything,” he said.

The Dalton Police Department is one of the few local agencies that hasn’t taken part in the program.

“It’s something that we may do in the future. But we haven’t begun to contemplate what we might take from them. We don’t have any glaring needs for anything they provide,” said spokesman Bruce Frazier.