By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security buys a lot of useful stuff for Kansas police departments, but that market is changing.
But for military grade stuff, the local agencies buy factory fresh.
Federal Homeland Security grants are expected to pick up the difference, so the minimal cost to police departments won’t change. The cost to taxpayers — estimated at $500 million last year — will rise, though no one is guessing by how much.
Selling military grade equipment to law enforcement “is a small industry, but a very dedicated one,” says consultant JerryPollack of Hudson, Ohio.
Fairway Police Chief Mike Fleming’s department got a sweet deal on some new military surplus night-vision goggles a few years ago. Among other things, the goggles help officers deal with late-night intruders on the city’s golf course. The department paid nothing, because Homeland Security picked up the tab.
Fairway is one of nearly 400 Kansas law-enforcement organizations signed up with the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, or DLA. Although the partnership gives the department what amounts to, virtually, a free crack at the nation’s surplus military equipment, it buys little from the federal agency.
“We peruse their listings,” Fleming said. “There is a lot of stuff in there for some departments, just not ours.”
“You could get anything then — armored cars, helicopters, even firearms,” said Thimmesch.
And many did.
As recently as 2011, numbers from DLA and other agencies show, DLA transferred more than 700,000 pieces of military surplus equipment worth $500 million to law-enforcement agencies across the U.S.
Precise records of what Kansans are buying are sketchy, however. Those night-vision goggles Chief Fleming bought in Fairway count as a piece of equipment, as does an armored tactical vehicle that the Salina Police Department purchased, in part, to fight the so-called war on drugs.
Most Kansas departments probably shop DLA for things such as chairs, desks or surplus office equipment, Thimmesch said. Uncle Sam pays for helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and other big-ticket items departments might want, but not the cost of training someone to use or maintain them.
Although DLA identifies 377 Kansas participants that subscribe to its surplus equipment catalogs, it isn’t immediately clear how many of them are actually buying things, said Michelle McKaskill, a DLA spokeswoman.
More departments that do buy big-ticket items increasingly are turning to factory-new equipment instead of military surplus gear. They buy armored tactical vehicles from any of maybe a dozen U.S. manufacturers, and Homeland Security pays for those, too.
Lawrence city officials, for example, just signed off on the purchase of a $152,000 custom-made armored tactical vehicle, meant to provide additional security for officers serving potentially dangerous arrest warrants or dealing with hostage situations.
“We’ve tried used equipment before and have learned its limitations,” said Lawrence Police Sgt. Trent McKinley. “We’re currently using an old converted Dodge cargo van that provides little protection to officers or to citizens in those situations.”
From what authorities can remember, Junction City, Topeka and Wichita — in addition to Lawrence and Salina — are the only cities that have acquired, or about to acquire, factory-new armored tactical vehicles, as opposed to military surplus, said Junction City Police Chief Tim Brown.
“We used an old library truck before,” Brown said.
He said that his department and others try to cut the generally estimated $150,000 to $250,000 cost of the new units by financing the acquisitions through regional emergency management councils and sharing the unit with other departments that chip in for radios or other equipment, thus helping to cut Homeland’s costs.
Such cost-sharing arrangements offer short-term relief from sticker shock, but can be difficult to sustain longer term, said industry consultant Jerry Pollack of Lindstrom Research.
“It’s like you and your brother borrowing your dad’s car,” Pollack said. “It doesn’t always work out.”
Contact Gene Meyer at [email protected]