New Jersey police departments received $11.8 million of surplus military equipment since 2018 — including two heavily armored vehicles — under a Pentagon program that is facing renewed scrutiny amid calls for police reform, federal records show.
In Washington Township, Gloucester County, police tapped military hand-me-downs last year to acquire a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle that was designed more for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than the streets of a sprawling suburban South Jersey community.
So did the city of Passaic, which also received an MRAP, as the mammoth armored vehicles are typically called.
Those were among thousands of pieces of castoff military equipment that New Jersey police departments got over the past 2½ years from a longtime Defense Department program that provides excess military gear to them for free, other than the cost of shipping and maintenance.
The program sent more than 100 vehicles to local departments, ranging from Humvees and cargo trucks to ATVs, fork lifts and motorized carts. It provided tactical gear that included 242 night-vision goggles, viewers and other illumination devices, and 379 gun sights — including high-tech laser, thermal and holographic sights.
Supporters call the federal Law Enforcement Support Office program a boon for local taxpayers and public safety, saying it has distributed $7.4 billion in needed equipment nationwide since its inception in the 1990s.
They say most of the gear looks more like the aisles of Office Depot or Lowe’s than the corridors of Fallujah: Furniture, vacuums, exercise equipment and power tools ranked among the scores of mundane items that New Jersey departments recently received.
But critics charge the program has contributed to the militarization of local police departments, an issue that has captured the national conversation following protests after the May death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. The protests have spurred demands for changes in the way police interact with their communities, including calls for resources to be shifted from law enforcement to the social services network.
Washington Township and Passaic are among 18 New Jersey police departments that have received mine resistant vehicles since 2013, according to the federal Law Enforcement Support Office, which runs the surplus program.
“These weapons and this military equipment is better served for a war zone and not policing,” said state Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, who spearheaded a 2015 law that added transparency to the acquisitions. “This equipment was made for war. It was not made for policing communities.”
In February, Gill reintroduced a bill calling for the Attorney General’s Office to exercise greater oversight over the transfers.
The Attorney General’s Office says acquisitions are already rigorously vetted, with departments required to justify requests for equipment such as armored vehicles, firearms or riot gear. The office is committed to ensuring that any military surplus is “used only for necessary and appropriate law enforcement and rescue purposes,” spokesman Peter Aseltine said in a prepared statement.
Washington Township was shipped its MRAP — valued at $767,360 when it was new — in July 2019, federal records show. The township has also received two Humvees, one of them armored, since applying to the program three years ago, according to Jason Gonter, the senior deputy director of the township’s office of emergency management.
Gonter defended the acquisitions, saying the township is home to a public school system, a large New Jersey Transit bus depot and a campus of Jefferson Hospital, all of which could be potential targets of terrorism. The vehicles could also be useful in floods, snowstorms and other severe weather emergencies, he said.
“The primary responsibility of government is to promote public safety and protect its citizens, especially our children,” Gonter said in a statement. “You no doubt recall the terrible school and mass shootings around the country in the last 10 years or so.”
Passaic’s request for its MRAP — valued at $300,000 new — cited SWAT operations such as active shooters, barricaded suspects and hostage rescues, according to federal records. But Deputy Chief Jonathan Schaer said that while the vehicle would be used in such a crisis, it was more toward an eye for Superstorm Sandy-esque floods that it was acquired, given the city’s location along the Passaic River.
The MRAP can hold 10 to 20 people, sits 5 to 6 feet off the ground and could be used to ford flooded areas, Schaer said. And the price was right, considering it was free, he said.
“If someone had approached us and said, ‘Hey, we have this giant truck for $300,000, we would have laughed them out of the building,” Schaer said.
As it is, the MRAP has yet to be used. In fact, it is in the repair shop, Schaer said, with a broken air conditioning unit. Even once it is fixed, Schaer said he anticipates the vehicle will rarely be utilized.
“It served our purposes as a rescue vehicle. This happens to be what the federal government was offering and we took advantage of the program,” Schaer said. He said Passaic has also received two Humvees, one of which is inoperable and being used for spare parts.
Military surplus equipment has long proven controversial in New Jersey, where until recent years, the program operated with little oversight. A 2014 investigation by NJ Advance Media found departments had received M16 and M14 assault rifles, helicopters and even a grenade launcher, prompting legislative efforts to rein the acquisitions in.
Despite the negative attention, much of the equipment local departments are receiving is useful and uncontroversial, said Brian Higgins, a former Bergen County public safety director who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Still, Higgins said he believes MRAPs are questionable for local police departments, and that the times are calling for greater scrutiny over military acquisitions in general. Higgins said there needs to be more transparency on the equipment police are amassing, and why it is justified in their community.
“There’s obviously a movement and the focus is police reform, police-community relations, race relations,” Higgins said. “I think we need to focus on that and building those relationships.”
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