Inventory of military gear acquired by N.J. police provides new ammunition for critics

truther December 3, 2014 0
Ted Sherman

The M-14 is an assault rifle capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute.

New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, whose conservation officers enforce the state’s wildlife laws and regulations, now has 16 of the military rifles—all acquired from the Department of Defense.


Police agencies nationwide have long had access to a trove of surplus military gear given away by the Pentagon—everything from unwanted office computers and furniture, to machine guns and grenade launchers—and 155 law enforcement agencies in New Jersey have taken advantage of the free giveaway over the years. The state Attorney General’s office, however, steadfastly refused to disclose just which police departments received battlefield rifles, combat knives, or armored vehicles under the program—citing security concerns.

But a fuller picture of the program has emerged revealing that a lot of heavy firepower went to many New Jersey police departments, both big and small, after the Attorney General—in response to a public records request by a state legislator—agreed recently to release a full list showing the disposition of all surplus military equipment in the state.

According to the weapons inventory, 80 police departments received 894 M-16 and M-14 rifles through the defense department program.

The M-16 rifle is an automatic or select-fire 5.56 mm weapon introduced during the Vietnam War. The M-14, which is older and heavier, is also an automatic rifle with a 7.62 mm cartridge, and is still used by military sniper teams.

State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), who pushed for release of the information, questioned the need for such weapons in police arsenals.

“Military style equipment is more appropriate for a war zone than in community policing,” she said.

The extent of the program has been no secret. The Defense Department makes available a full listing of the items shipped to the state, and a report in August in The Star-Ledger and detailed the nature of the equipment received here. However, state and federal officials would not provide information on what departments specifically received any of the weapons and tactical equipment. An earlier public records request by NJ Advance Media for the data had been denied.

A spokesman for the Attorney General said the department only recently decided to make the entire military weapons distribution list public after “internal discussion of the implications of releasing this information.”

Gill is proposing legislation that would require local municipal and county governing boards to approve applications for the acquisition of surplus military hardware, and mandate oversight of the program by the state Attorney General.

“It should be the Attorney General who makes the decision whether these weapons are appropriate,” she said.

Under current program rules, a police agency only makes a request for equipment through a State Police coordinator to the Defense Logistics Agency, which has final authority on the transfer of any equipment. Local approval is not mandated.

According to the Attorney General’s office, the state Office of Emergency Management is currently conducting an ongoing review of the surplus military equipment program, which has come under increasing scrutiny nationwide after police in Ferguson, Mo., responded to demonstrators with armored vehicles and tactical armor following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer last August.

Police arsenals

Jersey City, according to the weapons list, has the most number of assault rifles with 155 M-16s and another 15 M-14s, which city officials say was a direct response to concerns over terrorism following the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Paterson police got 25 M-14s. West New York took 10 of the lighter and more modern M-16s, as well as 14 M-14 rifles. The Elizabeth Police Department was given 20 of the M-14s.


Many suburban communities also sought similar weapons. Livingston police in Essex County, for example, obtained 15 M-16s and 1 M-14. West Milford police in Passaic County, with little in the way of violent crime, received six M-16s and six 12-gauge riot shotguns. And Mt. Olive Township in Morris County took 16 M-16s and 10 M-14s through the program.

Livingston Police Capt. Gary Marshuetz said in an age of school and mall shootings where innocent lives may be at stake, every police department needs to be prepared for the worst—and be ready to respond against suspects likely to be carrying weapons more powerful than a handgun.

“The rifle is a distance weapon. The projectile will carry further, allowing an officer to engage with a suspect at a further distance,” he said.

Acquiring tactical equipment

Marshuetz added just because a department did not acquire military-style weapons through the government program, one should not assume a police agency does not have them. “Police departments are buying these rifles outright,” he asserted.

Many departments, in fact, use federal grant money and drug forfeiture funds to augment police equipment, including guns and vehicles.

The city of Newark, for example, received no rifles or other tactical equipment through the surplus program. But the Newark Police Department has a $250,000 armored vehicle equipped with a radiation and chemical detector and a reinforced bottom to absorb improvised explosions that it purchased with forfeiture funds, according to department spokesman Sgt. Ronald Glover.

Law enforcement experts say SWAT teams commonly have assault rifles and other military tactical equipment, but train extensively with the weapons and other gear.

Mt. Olive Police Chief Mark Spitzer said the M-16s acquired by his department are used as patrol rifles. The heavier and older M-14 rifles, he said, are usable, but are intended more for ceremonial use in honor guards.

“Each front-line officer has been trained and continues to train in their use,” he said. “While we have deployed them in some actual events, they have not come into actual use, thankfully.”

Spitzer’s department has also made requests through the military surplus program for high-water vehicles, to allow police to better respond during floods, but has yet to find a suitable truck. “They offered us Humvees, but they don’t make much sense. We need something with more capacity,” he said.

The police chief said some departments that have acquired Army Humvees have not used the trucks as much as anticipated. At the same time, he noted there is a cost to maintaining surplus military equipment, even if it is not used.

“I think people are learning that,” he said.

In fact, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department said it is giving back the grenade launcher it acquired under the program, after earlier dropping its request as well for a mine-resistant armored vehicle.

The Vietnam-era grenade launcher, obtained in 2008 had been reconfigured to lob pepper spray chemical canisters, said department spokesman Joe Hornyak. Since all surplus military equipment obtained through the program must either be given to another law enforcement agency, or returned to the Defense Department, the sheriff’s office is sending it back.

“We never utilized it, the equipment is obsolete and the paperwork for returning it to the government has been filed out,” Hornyak said.

Plainfield, which obtained $2.5 million in military equipment, including more than ten high-water trucks officials for flooding emergencies, is also returning some of the items it received—20 bayonets. Police Directory Carl Riley said it was first assumed they were utility knives useful for cutting seatbelts in motor vehicle accidents. Once he saw the bayonets, he ordered them returned.

“There’s no need for that,” remarked Riley, whose department also did not ordered any automatic weapons.

A shopping spree

Many police agencies have embraced the military surplus program with the zeal of a Black Friday shopper. Middletown led the pack, with $3.6 million worth of equipment, including a $412,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected combat vehicle that officials said was used to rescue people from their homes during Hurricane Sandy. But the township also acquired non-tactical equipment such as generators, water pumps, cameras and other vehicles that they did not have to buy.

Middletown police MRAP and Humvee vehicles  - 8.20.2014
Middletown Police SFC William Colangelo climbs into the cab of the department’s mine-resistant armored vehicle acquired last year through the government’s military surplus program for high-water rescues. (Tony Kurdzuk | NJ Advance Media)

The Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, which received 20 M-16s under the program, received $1.1 million in surplus equipment through the Department of Defense program, including seven trucks, welding equipment, two dental examination chairs, tool boxes, power saws and reflective tape.

“By utilizing the surplus equipment, it helps reduce the overall cost to the Passaic County taxpayer,” said department spokesman William Maer. “The requests were made after an agency-wide evaluation to determine what equipment was needed.”

He said most of the equipment received was non-tactical and utilized for the routine day-to-day operations of the sheriff’s office. The assault rifles, he said, were for the department’s SWAT team, to supplement already existing weapons.

Rutgers University professor Wayne Fisher, former chairman of the New Jersey Police Training Commission, has heard the arguments against the militarization of police, but is less concerned about the acquisition of military firearms, than whether departments have proper training and protocols for their use.

“The problem is not the kind of rifles police have. It’s the training and qualifications of the people who may be called upon to use them,” he said.

Militarizing the police

The American Civil Liberties Union, though, echoed the concerns of Nia Gill over the proliferation of military equipment by police agencies.

“The more that local law enforcement agencies militarize, or adopt tactics and equipment more suited for the battlefield, the more we’re going to see officers developing warrior mentalities,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “There should be an open public discussion in communities about whether these weapons are the right fit for their police departments.”

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, meanwhile, defended the acquisition of the M-14s by the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife’s conservation officers, although officials would not discuss how they will be deployed.

“This is a fully engaged police agency that patrols more than 800,000 acres in all 21 counties, plus our waterways, and faces a wide-ranging variety of policing issues,” said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. “There are a variety of tactical considerations as to why these rifles are issued, and for their potential use. But we will not engage in a public dialogue in the media to detail our operational procedures.”

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