ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A U.S. Department of Defense program which loans local law enforcement agencies surplus military gear has sent $10.2 million worth of weapons, helicopters and armored trucks to New Mexico, according to an audit of the equipment.
The audit by the Pentagon office responsible for the 1033 program shows that the equipment went to 32 agencies.
Departments as small as the Clovis Police Department and the New Mexico State University Police received massive Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, while San Juan County Sheriff’s Office was granted the use of a $4 million helicopter to help patrol a 5,200 square-mile region in the Four Corners area.
The Albuquerque Police Department also received weapons from the program, documents show.
The document was obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request.
The surplus equipment program is under review by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the police response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.
President Barack Obama said images of well-armed police confronting protesters made it useful to review how local law enforcement agencies have used federal grants that permit them to obtain heavier armaments.
Law enforcement agencies in New Mexico said the extra military gear helps them in their work.
“We use it simply as a law enforcement tool,” said San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christensen. He said the county couldn’t afford the high-tech helicopter otherwise.
Critics say the equipment is contributing to the unnecessary militarization of local police.
“This has nothing to do with policing. This has nothing to do with making communities safe,” said David Correia, an American Studies professor at the University of New Mexico.
Under the program, the Defense Department sends out excess equipment on permanent loan to the police as long as the gear is maintained, accounted for and never sold or given away. Local agencies usually pay for shipping and maintenance.
The most recent audit of equipment in New Mexico by the Defense Logistics Agency found that the state was compliant with its record keeping of equipment and officials were praised for their oversight. Agencies in other states have been accused of misplacing equipment or poor record-keeping.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department also have similar programs. A recent Albuquerque Journal analysis found the state received more than $28 million this year in Homeland Security grants, although state officials don’t have a breakdown how that money was spent.
Los Lunas Police Chief Naithan Gurule said despite the concern about weapons, he believes the program has helped save lives in his small city. In May, officers using an armored vehicle were able to shelter residents and officers while state police officers shot a man who was locked in a five-hour standoff with police, he said. Authorities say the man shot at police at least 70 times.
“We’re very thankful because it could have been a tragic situation,” Gurule said. “But that vehicle saved lives.”