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Military program puts pricey equipment into hands of Pittsburgh law enforcement

Police Chief Barry Kramer says he and his officers felt a bit intimidated when they climbed into the newest addition to Center's fleet: a 48,000-pound armored vehicle built to withstand explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“But once we understood the functions and how it makes turns and stops, where its blind spots are and all that stuff, it really was manageable to drive,” said Kramer, who received the six-wheeled, desert sand-colored behemoth on May 14 from the Department of Defense through an equipment surplus program.

“Now we can deploy it when we feel that a situation is becoming dangerous — say, an active shooter or a barricaded suspect — without exposing ourselves to gunfire.”

The federal government paid about $733,000 for the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, which stands 12½ feet tall, carries as many as 10 men and has a V-shaped hull to deflect land mines. For Kramer and his 14 full-time officers in Beaver County, the vehicle cost only $4,200 in shipping charges from Sealy, Texas.

The Pentagon's 1033 Excess Property program, which dates to the early 1990s, enables law enforcement agencies to receive surplus military equipment. Available stock can range from desks, filing cabinets and computers to M-16 assault rifles, night-vision goggles and armored vehicles.

The program aims to stretch taxpayer dollars by passing equipment down, rather than scrapping it. But watchdogs get leery when they see the government unloading large amounts of expensive items, particularly if those military tools might not be suitable for civilian law enforcement.

Since its inception, the 1033 program has distributed equipment worth more than $4 billion — including items valued at $450 million in 2013 — to about 8,000 agencies.

“If the 1033 program grows to such a huge level, you have to question why we purchased this equipment in the first place,” said Sean Kennedy, research director for the Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste. “It seems like it's a good thing because it's not going to waste, but on the other hand it's not really saving money because that money was already paid on the front end.”

Useful equipment

Center nabbed one of five MRAPs made available to Pennsylvania agencies this year. Nationwide, the Defense Logistics Agency transferred 587 MRAPs since August, agency spokeswoman Michelle McCaskill said. At a low-ball estimate of about $500,000 each, that amounts to a value of at least $293 million.

“It's built well, and it's free. I'd be crazy not to take it,” said Ohio Township police Chief Norbert Micklos, whose officers will share an MRAP with more than a dozen Allegheny County departments that make up the North Hills Special Response Team.

Like Kramer, Micklos says his multi-jurisdictional SWAT team anticipates using the armored vehicle primarily for active-shooter situations. He points to the 2009 shooting in Stanton Heights in which three Pittsburgh officers died as an example of when such protection could save lives. SWAT teams and shooter Richard Poplawski, on death row for murder, fired more than 600 rounds.

“It's not about making us more militarized,” said Micklos, who got night-vision goggles, a thermal-imaging camera, heavy-duty rifle cases and M-14 rifles through the program. “It's about getting a piece of equipment that's useful to us.”

Kramer said his Beaver County community of about 12,000 people is somewhat small, but his force is tasked with protecting critical infrastructure and large public hubs — Beaver Valley Mall, Penn State Beaver, Community College of Beaver County and the nuclear power plant in Shippingport.

High-profile school shootings in recent years made him interested in an MRAP.

Participation grows

The Defense Logistics Agency makes it clear that surplus items are transferred “as is,” and the recipient is responsible for maintenance.

“What appears to be a free gift now may end up being a costly piece of machinery down the road,” Kennedy said.

The MRAPs that made it to Pennsylvania have bodies about a year or two old, with a few scratches and some rust, but the drivetrains, engines and transmissions are new.

Justin Klingenberger, head of maintenance for Ohio Township police, said MRAP parts and fluids are not all that different from commercial trucks, and its weight is comparable to a loaded garbage truck or fire engine. He doesn't foresee unaffordable maintenance costs.

“Hopefully, we'll never have a need for it,” Micklos said.

Humvees valued at $32,000 to $43,000 are a popular item, said Mike Starr, Pennsylvania's federal surplus chief under the state Department of General Services in Harrisburg.

About 75 agencies participate in the program, up from 35 less than two years ago. Starr anticipates more participation because he implemented a flat fee this year of $400 to $750 annually to replace a 4 percent surcharge on the value of equipment transferred.

Worth the cost

Disposable Flex-Cuff restraints have been in high demand; police snapped up about 150,000 of the 208,000 that Starr received this year.

Beaver County Emergency Management Coordinator Wesley Hill said protective gear, such as military-grade vests and helmets, is the most useful item.

Mt. Oliver police received six M-16s and two Chevrolet Blazers in the early 2000s. Although officers haven't fired the rifles outside training, they brought them to situations to persuade suspects to stand down, acting Chief Matt Juzwick said. He has zero interest in an MRAP.

“That's way too big for our town,” which spans less than half a square mile, Juzwick said.

Pennsylvania typically gets $1 million to $2 million worth of military surplus items annually, Starr said. This year, that amount could quad­ruple; the MRAPs alone rack up $3.7 million. More MRAPs could be available when the military unloads about 12,300 of them.

Congress has doled out about $44 billion to acquire about 28,000 MRAPs.

The Army credits MRAPs with saving “an untold number of lives,” spokesman Michael Clow said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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©2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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