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What items have local police departments received through the military surplus program?
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What items have local police departments received through the military surplus program?

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Like many South Jersey communities, Longport deals with its share of flooding.

But the heavy trucks officials use to navigate the borough’s streets during high-water events can sometimes cause even more damage.

So last year, the department took advantage of a federal program to get a high-water vehicle, a Humvee valued at just over $41,000 that was once used by the U.S. military.

“In storm situations, those 5-ton trucks are too big to get up and down some of our smaller streets when there’s a storm or high waters. At times, they cause more damage when they’re driving down the streets, pushing water,” Longport Police Chief Frank Culmone said. “Especially for the shore towns that are getting this type of equipment, the takeaway is that everything we’re doing is to prepare for the next Hurricane Sandy.”

Commonly referred to as the 1033 Program and run by the Defense Logistics Agency, police departments across the country are able to claim excess military equipment — from vehicles, medical supplies, rifles and ammunition to computers and other office supplies — at only the cost of shipping, storage and maintenance.

Since the program’s inception in the early 1990s, the agency has transferred $6 billion in excess property to local law enforcement agencies across the country, according to a 2018 report by nonprofit global policy think tank RAND Corp.

Local law enforcement officials said the program is a good way to get equipment when budgets are tight, but there’s a balance that needs to be struck, as the appearance of a militarized police force, they added, is not the goal.

“It’s needs-based, and what I see, for us, it’s an opportunity for us to take possession of unwanted equipment from the military, and it basically has to do more with budgetary limitations than with militarization or the type of equipment,” Culmone said. “Because of budgets, a lot of us have to be dynamic and have to be open-minded with the way we use things. And unfortunately, they are what they are — they’re military equipment.”

Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey H. Sutherland said he has “zero interest in militarizing the police and giving the impression that it is.”

The agency hasn’t used the program since Sutherland became prosecutor in 2017, he said, and the office actually is in the process of selling or returning one of its Humvees.

The two vehicles, called utility trucks in DLA listings, were acquired in 2013.

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The cost of maintaining the vehicles has become too much, Sutherland said. However, the agency does use a program-acquired metal detector set — described as a mine detecting set by the DLA and valued at $5,657 — at crime scenes to find shell casings or even parts of a car after an accident.

“In my perfect world, I’ll be replacing the tires on the community outreach vehicle and cleaning cobwebs off the SWAT vehicle. In a perfect world, it shouldn’t have to be used,” Sutherland said. “Having a Humvee that we’re not really using, and you’re taking it to community events, what’s the message that you’re sending?”

The Avalon Police Department acquired two trucks, each valued at $50,458, in 2013 for high-water events, which are currently used to traverse the borough streets during floods and storms, police Chief Jeffrey R. Christopher said.

“Because of these trucks, we remain ready to respond to emergencies and we don’t risk damage to our patrol vehicle fleet,” he said, describing the program as a “win for everyone,” since the department gets necessary equipment but taxpayers don’t have to pay for it.

“There may be a misconception that the intent is to militarize the police, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Christopher said. “Police departments must submit adequate justification for their request, or it may be denied by the state coordinator.”

And the reason why the department hasn’t used the program in almost a decade is simple — they haven’t needed anything, he said.

In contrast, the Ocean City Police Department has used the program as recently as March, acquiring computer hardware, medical supplies, rifle slings, a wet suit and magazine cartridges, among other equipment.

Ocean City police Chief John J. Prettyman said the items acquired are directly related to the department’s daily operations and are not used during or in preparation of tactical events.

“We are very selective about the items we get,” he said. “I do not want to acquire anything that we ‘may’ use. I only agree to get things that we will absolutely use to help our department better deliver police services to our community.”

And, like Avalon and Longport, the department also has to deal with water inundating the resort’s streets.

“The most expensive items that we have acquired have been to help our department serve our community during flooding events when our normal equipment and vehicles are virtually useless,” he said. “They have proven to be extremely valuable during these emergency situations.”

But it’s not “top-of-the-line” equipment, Culmone said.

“For me, it’s something that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to get,” he said. “Instead of purchasing something for $100,000 or more, I’m able to put a $4,000 engine and it’ll be OK for me. It’ll serve its purpose.”

Overall, transparency is the key for officials using the program, he said, educating residents through news releases about why a department is acquiring equipment.

“It’s not a secret, it’s there,” Culmone said of the Humvee, adding the vehicle isn’t glamorous. “This affords us that opportunity to continue to do our jobs and giving people what they need and providing the services that they expect.”

Contact: 609-272-7241

mbilinski@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressMollyB

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Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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