A program that distributes surplus military equipment to state and local police departments across the country is under scrutiny, as protestors in Ferguson, Mo., have been met by local police in armored vehicles and full military gear.

The White House is currently reviewing the program, authorized by Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The Republican Journal investigated how the program is being used in Waldo County, and found that military surplus is supplying basic equipment needs, not weapons or military-style vehicles. Most local law enforcement agencies report that the weapons they have obtained from the military have been or are being returned because of the extensive paperwork required for possessing them.

Oddly, the requirements relate to tracking the guns, not justifying possession of them or showing that there is a need for them in the community.

Ancient shotguns

Lt. Aaron Hayden of the Maine State Police said to his knowledge, Troop D has not received any surplus military equipment that is currently being used.

"We may have gotten items in the past, but that equipment has been replaced since I have been in command of the Troop," he said.

Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton of the Waldo County Sheriff's Office said the office received four 12-gauge shotguns that will be returned because they are worn out. He said they also received some red dot sights (sighting aids) through the program.

Belfast Police Chief Michael McFadden said the Belfast Police Department once received shotguns through the program, but they were not useful.

"They sat in the arsenal unused, collecting dust," he said. "They were 40-year-old, ancient wooden things that wouldn't fit in the trunks of our cars."

McFadden said keeping the guns wasn't worth the amount of time it would take to keep up with the paperwork and photo documentation required, so he tried to return them to the federal government. This, too, proved to be difficult and required a lot of paperwork. He was finally able to give them to another police department.

"If I want something, I will justify it and ask the city council for funding," McFadden said. "If we can't justify it, we probably don't need it."

McFadden said he can't criticize the police response in Ferguson, Mo. because he can not "pretend to know what they have to deal with on a daily basis," but he thought there should be a difference between the military and the police.

"If something were to happen here that requires that kind of response," he said, "I'd contact other agencies."

Other equipment 

In Searsport, the program has helped the police department acquire basic equipment that the community otherwise would not have been able to afford.

Searsport Police Chief Richard LaHaye said since 2008 the department has received items ranging from a defibrillator and a Jaws of Life — used by the Searsport Ambulance — to a large generator that is used at the town garage, camera equipment, a whiteboard and an overhead projector.

"Basic items we needed would have cost the community a substantial amount of money, and there's no money in the Searsport budget for this equipment," LaHaye said. "We've received about $300,000 worth of equipment from the military for free — and that's the  government dollar value. It would cost us much more to buy these items ourselves."

LaHaye said the department also received weapons through the program in the past, but they now purchase their weapons locally, from Maine Military Supply in Bangor. They received M14 and M16 rifles, which are similar to AR15 rifles, and 1911 Colt .45 pistols, which, though an older model, "are as true a weapon as could be."

However, they returned the pistols and rifles because they were tracked by the federal government and the paperwork to substantiate possession was "more of a bother than was worthwhile," he said.

The criterion for possessing military weapons is to maintain a paperwork trail with photos. The department was not required to report how the weapons were used or why there is a need for them in that community, LaHaye said.

LaHaye said that when the Searsport Police Department advertised that its weapons were available, they were "swooped up by other departments."

Searsport also received a vehicle with a plow and a large vehicle for transporting and offloading barricades used to close off areas.

"Sometimes we joke about getting a Humvee and what it would be like to have one of those in Searsport," LaHaye said. "But we're a small community and it would be confusing to people. Community sentiment is really important to us."

LaHaye said he would never think of getting an armored vehicle for Searsport. As it turns out, he said, the military vehicle program is shut down because air quality issues.

The department has not acquired new equipment over the past four years, he said.

Statewide data

According to a Pentagon spreadsheet available on the WMTW website of all the items distributed in Maine, it is not uncommon for other Maine counties to receive weapons and military-style vehicles.

Cumberland and York counties each received mine-resistant vehicles, though it is unlikely that they will be protecting officers from any landmines. Androscoggin County received two full-tracked personnel carriers, while Kennebec County received two fixed-wing aircraft.

Among other weapons, each county received rifles. Cumberland received 126, and Franklin County received 18 — plus a bayonet and scabbard. (Cumberland County also received 10 paintball guns.) Knox County received 12 rifles and an explosive ordnance disposal robot. In addition to computers and extensive snow removal equipment, Aroostook County received 65 rifles. Oxford County received 24 rifles, and Penobscot County received 18 rifles and 10 night vision image intensifiers (valued at more than $19,000 each). Kennebec County received the most night-vision goggles — 65 — of any county.

The spreadsheet also showed other items Waldo County received including flotation vests, protective goggles, telescopes, and a small arms maintenance kit. It does not include the equipment LaHaye said Searsport received, so there appears to be some inaccuracies in the document.

The graph above shows a breakdown of the government dollar value of the equipment received by each county in Maine according to the Pentagon spreadsheet. Rifles, pistols, shotguns and their accessories were included in the weapons portion of the total value. Night vision goggles and night vision image intensifiers were included in the "other" category, along with office supplies, emergency medical equipment, camping gear, tools and miscellaneous equipment.