After the militarized police response to August’s upheaval in Ferguson, Mo., reporters across the nation sought information about the Pentagon’s sharing of surplus equipment with domestic law agencies. Unlike most states, North Carolina refused to release specifics about its participation in the program, with Department of Public Safety officials saying that to do so could aid criminals.

Regardless, some of N.C.’s law agencies previously released information about the military gear they received, and now the Defense Department has published the full inventory online, revealing that at least 44 agencies in Western North Carolina have partaken in the bonanza of tactical gear, weapons, and armored vehicles, along with more mundane items such as office and exercise equipment.

Some area agencies hit it especially big. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office received more than $1.2 million in items under the program, including a mine-resistant vehicle and two helicopters. That made the department the second largest recipient in the state, after the Roanoke Rapids Police Department, which received more than $1.3 million worth.

Other WNC agencies got goods amounting to a small fraction of those sums, the newly released records show. The North Carolina Arboretum in south Asheville, for example, obtained just one $138 rifle for its small security force.

The federal program, which started in 1990 and is ongoing, has netted North Carolina law agencies at least $16.5 million in military equipment thus far.

At the same time, the Obama administration has launched a review of the program, and North Carolina is at least temporarily suspended from it after failing to comply with a key paperwork deadline earlier this year.

Recipients big and small

Participation in the program is voluntary, and the newly released data show which agencies pursued the surplus defense handouts most aggressively.

In North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties, these were the top 10 recipients under the program, in terms of the total value of the items they received:

  • Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office ($1,203,749)
  • Andrews Police Department ($171,041)
  • Haywood County Sheriff’s Office ($168,114)
  • Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office ($139,672)
  • Murphy Police Department ($90,103)
  • Asheville Police Department ($65,070)
  • McDowell County Sheriff’s Office ($49,472)
  • Watauga County Sheriff’s Office ($47,782)
  • Boone Police Department ($45,726)
  • Mars Hill Police Department ($43,924)

Other area agencies drew a far smaller bounty from the Defense Department. National Park Service officers on the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, received only $20.24 worth in the form of four cargo ties. And the Madison County Sheriff’s Office received two pistols, valued together at just $117.

See the details on what each agency in North Carolina, including the 44 in WNC that participated, received in the itemized listing below. It was prepared and shared by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative news service based in New York City.

University police received weapons

The police forces at WNC’s three state universities have also participated in the program.

At UNC Asheville, the campus police received $469 worth: eight automatic pistols. And Appalachian State University’s police received $912 worth: four rifles and four shotguns.

Western Carolina University’s force received substantially more: $7,392 worth of eight rifles and 10 rifle scopes.

White House review underway

Last week, the White House released a preliminary report about several federal programs, including the main Defense Department one that’s detailed in the new data, that share military equipment with state and local law agencies.

“These programs have significantly expanded over decades across multiple federal agencies without, at times, a commensurate growth in the infrastructure required to standardize procedures governing the flow of equipment from the federal government,” the report said.

“At the same time, training has not been institutionalized, specifically with respect to civil rights and civil liberties protections, or the safe use of equipment received through the federal government. Concerns over the lack of consistent protections have received renewed focus and attention in light of the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Moving forward, the report said, the Obama administration is seeking measures to ensure that the military gear shared with law enforcement “is appropriate to the needs of their communities,” that proper training is conducted and that standards are adopted to “prevent misuse/abuse of the equipment.” Read the full report below.

White House Report on Military Police Support of Local Law Agencies (PDF)
White House Report on Military Police Support of Local Law Agencies (Text)

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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