The state law enforcement agency that has made the most of a federal program offering military surplus equipment at fire-sale rates is just as likely to face a charging moose as a dangerous criminal.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has ordered more than 150 assault rifles – and 10 bayonets – under a nationwide initiative known as the 1033 Program, which provides out-of-commission military equipment to law enforcement agencies for the price of shipping.
The reliance on the program for items such as guns, dog kennels, heating blankets and sleeping bags illustrates the unique challenges for the agency with one of Washington’s largest jurisdictions, and the variety of equipment available through the exchange. The 1033 Program entered the spotlight nationally following the militarylike response by law enforcement to protests over a teenager’s shooting death by police in a St. Louis suburb.
Steve Crown, chief of enforcement with the Fish and Wildlife Department, said the 1033 Program enables the agency to outfit its agents with the spectrum of tools they need to handle a variety of situations.
“Most of our officers, their entire office is in their trucks,” Crown said. Wardens are asked to patrol a wide area, often heavily forested, and respond to calls that require them to subdue or kill wild animals, he said. The 130 modified M16s and almost 40 modified M14s ordered by the agency through the Department of Defense allow officers to complement their handguns and Remington shotguns at pennies on the dollar, Crown said.
“In urban environments, a shotgun works pretty well,” Crown said. “But in a more forested area, a long rifle is more useful.”
Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen said his agency has ordered more than 30 M16 assault rifles for similar reasons.
“It gives our officers another option, especially if they’re being shot at, at long range,” Allen said. In Stevens County, most property owners also own rifles, he said. And while the majority of those rifle owners are law-abiding citizens, Allen said, he doesn’t want his deputies to be caught off guard by criminals who are carrying high-powered weapons.
For some smaller agencies, the program can provide stopgap outfitting until budgets catch up with needs. In Liberty Lake, the department received six assault rifles from the military that officers used on patrol until the agency had money to buy new ones, Chief Brian Asmus said.
“The ones we got are in pretty rough shape,” Asmus said of the military surplus rifles. They remain in storage, where they were counted by state auditors late last year, he said.
Guns aren’t the only items purchased from the military, according to records provided by the Washington Department of Enterprise Services. That agency maintains an inventory of all equipment ordered through the 1033 Program in the state. State law enforcement agencies have requested about a hundred body bags, an exercise bike, two forklifts and roughly a half-dozen mine detectors, according to department records.
And then there are the bayonets and scabbards ordered by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Crown believes they came packaged with some of the rifles the agency purchased, but he hasn’t seen them in the office yet.
“When you order these things up, you get the whole kit and caboodle,” he said. The rifles come with slots for modification, including reflex sights, red-dot sights and flashlights.
The Washington Department of Corrections has received multiple orders for body armor and binoculars.
But the Washington State Patrol has shied away from the 1033 Program; the only listed acquisition for that agency is an armored truck, purchased in 2002.
While the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has purchased numerous items through the program during the past 15 years, its orders pale in comparison to some jurisdictions on the West Side. The King County Sheriff’s Office, for example, has made more than 180 requests for equipment from the Department of Defense, compared to 28 by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Among the items ordered by the King County agency are wind and dust goggles, survival blankets and even domestic items like refrigerators and outdoor grills.
Crown, enforcement chief at Fish and Wildlife, said it’s important to remember the varied things citizens ask law enforcement to do when analyzing how they equip themselves. When he patrolled areas of Eastern Washington, he said, he kept a lasso in his truck that he used one day to rescue a mule deer foundering in an irrigation canal. The deer promptly gored him in the thigh after he’d managed to rescue it, he said.
“We have a very unique role within the law enforcement community,” Crown said. “It’s something that no one else does.”