Arms for the home front: Former military equipment sees new use in police
GRAND FORKS — When the Grand Forks Regional Special Operations Team was asked in September to help track down a fugitive in Steele and Traill counties, it rolled out a specially equipped Humvee that likely saw duty on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
“It gave us a rapid-response vehicle,” said Bill Macki, a lieutenant in the Grand Forks Police Department who led the 19-member SWAT team at the time. “We circled the cornfield and it gave us spotlights to see to the far side of the field. We had a moving position and we could use night vision goggles from an elevated position.”
The department got the 3-ton Humvee about three years ago through a federal program that provides local police departments and state agencies with military weapons and equipment no longer needed or used in the global war on terror.
A total of 1,549 weapons or other equipment — with an estimated value of about $3 million — has been distributed in North Dakota over the past decade by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency. More than 8,500 items have gone to law enforcement agencies in Minnesota.
The equipment ranges from night vision goggles and gun silencers to mine-resistant ambush-protected armored vehicles, better known as MRAPs.
“The great thing about the program is it saves law enforcement great amounts of money,” said Alan Brinkman, director of the North Dakota Surplus Property office, which distributes the war surplus to local agencies.
“You have to keep in mind a lot of these, Humvees for example, if law enforcement or firefighters don’t use them, they get destroyed. They are being repurposed,” he said.
MRAPs, with price tags of $658,000 and $689,000, have gone to sheriff’s departments in Stutsman and Richland counties.
Law enforcement agencies have received Humvees, Bearcat armored personnel carriers, M16A and M14 rifles, grenade launchers, .45-caliber pistols, silencers and night-vision goggles, as well as other equipment.
The Cando Police Department, for example, received a Humvee through the Defense Department program.
It has been equipped with a water tank and other firefighting equipment that the local fire department can use to fight rural grass and brush fires, according to police Chief Andrew Hillier.
“In the wintertime, it’s used to get around, if the weather gets bad,” he said.
SWAT and ceremony
The M16s, which have been used in combat, are modified by local law enforcement agencies into M4 carbines to be better suitable for SWAT use by the Special Operations Team, Macki said. That means swapping in collapsible stocks and adding rails for attachments such as flashlights and improved optics.
“With SWAT, you want the rifle to be outfitted to have the ability to get the job done,” he said.
The original parts are documented, inventoried and stored, in case they have to be sent back to the military.
Once marred by inaccurate record-keeping and lost equipment, especially on the East Coast, Brinkman said program agencies now have tighter controls of the inventory.
In 2008, North Dakota did lose track of a semi-automatic weapon, which never was recovered, he said. Aside from that, he said, “North Dakota’s never had a problem. Every weapon is accounted for.”
The M14s, an older-style battle rifle that soldiers used in Vietnam until the U.S. military converted to M16s in 1970, are used by local law enforcement for a variety of purposes.
In Grand Forks, they’re used by the police Honor Guard, which takes part in police memorial services, parades and for training. Retired Det. Mike Iwan refinished all of the stocks, Macki said.
“They’re super, super heavy,” said Cpl. LaVonne Nelson, an honor guard member for the past 12 years.
In total, the Grand Forks Police Department has about $48,000 worth of equipment acquired through the Defense Department.
“It’s certainly beneficial for special ops to have these rifles and this equipment,” Macki said. “They’ve outlived their usefulness for the military and they represent a tremendous cost savings for us.”