Brunswick council will screen police requests for surplus military equipment

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BRUNSWICK — Future Police Department requests for surplus military equipment will have to be approved by the Town Council.

“My intention is to take these requests to the council for review, especially when they are significant,” Town Manager John Eldridge said this week. 

Since 2008, the department has received more than $120,000 worth of weapons, sights, night vision equipment and other gear through a Department of Defense program that transfers surplus military supplies to domestic law enforcement agencies. 

Eldridge’s decision follows publication of a story two weeks ago by The Forecaster that detailed how much equipment Portland-area departments have received through the Pentagon program

The equipment is provided free of charge, but equipment requisitions by the Police Department from the so-called 1033 program were never reviewed by town councilors. 

Under state law, elected town officials have to approve donations or “conditional gifts” made to the town or its departments.

While he was unsure whether the town had its own written policy about accepting grants and donations, Eldridge said that council review has been “common practice.”

Transfers from the 1033 program, however, appear to have been completed without council oversight, despite the value of the requested equipment. The fact that the equipment is provided for free is likely why the requests were never brought before the council, Eldridge suggested.

The 1033 program does not require domestic law enforcement agencies to get approval for their requests from elected officials, an aspect that has led civil liberties groups and others to criticize it for lacking transparency and oversight. 

“(The decision in Brunswick) seems like a good step in terms of increased oversight and accountability,” Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Wednesday. “We would hope that more towns would follow Brunswick’s lead.

“But we still don’t want towns jumping at the chance to stockpile weapons just because they can,” Beyea said. “I think it’s important we remember that police are not soldiers and our towns are definitely not war zones.”

Through the program, Brunswick police have acquired six 5.56 mm rifles, four 7.62 mm rifles, 16 high-tech sights, 16 night vision image intensifiers, and four laptop computers, according to inventory records provided by the DOD’s Defense Logistics Agency, which runs the 1033 program.

The value of the equipment ranges from more than $550 for the 7.62 rifles to more than $102,200 for the night vision gear.

The first deliveries were two 5.56 mm rifles and four 7.62 mm rifles in September 2008, according to DOD records. The department’s most recent acquisition was three laptop computers valued at about $5,700 that shipped in February 2014.

Even though the excess equipment is technically free – agencies are responsible for shipping costs – the department “should have been” bringing its requests to administrators and the council, especially for big-ticket items, Eldridge said, since grants and donations require council approval.

“The context is the same, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman, who is beginning her second three-year term, said she could not recall the department bringing requests to the council, and supports Eldridge’s policy. 

“If our manager is suggesting that it comes to the council, that seems like a good idea to me,” Brayman said. 

 A review of council meeting minutes shows that over the same period it received the military equipment, Brunswick police sought and received council approval for several gifts, most recently a $2,000 donation to its lifesaver program in August 2014. 

It has also brought to the council requests for government grants. Those funding packages include almost annual requests from the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety to conduct anti-impaired driving operations and tens of thousands of dollars in U.S. Department of Justice funding, most recently more than $7,100 accepted February 2014 to replace vehicle radios.

Police Chief Richard Rizzo, who has run the department since 2008, on Wednesday said he wasn’t sure why the department never brought its requests to the council.

“Maybe we just looked at it in a different light, because is wasn’t a monetary thing,” Rizzo said. “It was just equipment, so we just didn’t look at it in the same way.”

Often, grants require a local funding match, which could mean expending funds, Rizzo said. The 1033 program does not have a required match, although departments must pay for maintenance and upkeep of the equipment.

It is also not clear if the department informed the town officials it was applying for the military equipment.

Rizzo said he wasn’t sure if he told the town’s previous two managers, Don Gerrish and Gary Brown, about the requisition applications. 

“I honestly don’t know,” Rizzo said. “I don’t recall.”

Police Cmdr. Marc Hagan said that most of the equipment received by the department was “pretty basic” stuff and there was no requirement to inform the council, especially for equipment it was getting for free. 

“I don’t know who would have a problem with the requests we have made,” Hagan said.  

According to Hagan, it cost the department about $178 to ship four 5.56 mm rifles it received in 2012. The remaining equipment was transferred from other departments in Maine at no cost, he added.

Overall, Brunswick has been “picky” with the 1033 equipment it applies for, selecting only the gear it needs, Rizzo said. He said there would be no problem bringing future requests to the council. 

The rifles Brunswick acquired were originally intended to be bought through normal budget channels, and could have cost up to $1,500 each, Rizzo said. Instead, he noted, the department got them for free. 

“Generally speaking,” the chief said, “I think most municipalities rely on their police chief to make good decisions about things like that, for equipment they need.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter @PeteL_McGuire.

Sidebar Elements

Combat rifles and laptop computers are among the more than $120,000 worth of surplus military equipment Brunswick police have acquired since 2008, without Town Council oversight.