CAROLINE, VA (WWBT) - Virginia police are quietly stocking up on millions of dollars in leftover military equipment.
Agencies around the Commonwealth have been doing this for the better part of two decades.
For instance, we found the predecessor to the military's modern day Mine Resistant Armored Vehicle also known as a MRAP. It's often used to transport soldiers and protect them from bombs. It's 24 feet across and weighs 25,000 pounds and you might see it on the streets of Caroline County.
"It didn't cost our taxpayers anything," said Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa.
How's that possible? They got it through what's called the military's 1033 program.
It's first come, first served. The military gives away its unwanted or out of commission items to local police. Things as mundane as cell phones, computers and camo boots. Also free? tactical vehicles and guns. The program's been around since the early 90's and the military's given away about $4.2 billion worth of property. None of the gifted property is allowed to be sold or leased without permission from the military.
The 12 On Your Side Investigators obtained a Department of Defense database. We reviewed every piece of equipment that's gone to Virginia police agencies since the early 90's.
State Police, the CIA even Virginia's Alcohol Beverage Control officers have gotten free stuff over the years. $584,000 in weapons and $4.1 million in military vehicles have gone to police across the Commonwealth.
Locally, every police agency in central Virginia has participated: Richmond Police, Sheriff, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover to name a few.
The list is long and the items these departments receive aren't always combat related. For instance, Hopewell Police got 43 blankets in 2000. Between 1999-2004 Henrico Police collected hundreds of items. Things like parkas, binoculars, camo helmets and trousers. You can see the full list of equipment that's gone to every agency here.
Half a million dollar Mine Resistant Vehicles (MRAPs) went to Culpeper and Tazewell police.
Between 2007-2011, Albemarle County stockpiled 154 guns, mainly 5.56-millimeter rifles. That was the most weapons taken through the program in the entire state by a single police agency. In 2012, the Department of Defense suspended the "give-away" of weapons because of concerns states weren't keeping adequate inventory.
The New Kent Sheriff's Office got a grenade launcher in 2010. So did the sheriffs in Bath County and Rockingham County.
We showed our findings to the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU. The non-profit has a national campaign asking, "Do towns need tanks?"
"These law enforcement folks are essentially turning themselves into paramilitary operations in a circumstance in which no citizen has had any opportunity to say whether that's what they want their police force to look like," said ACLU Virginia Executive Director Claire Gastanaga. She added, "The biggest concern we have is that this is going on without any public conversation about it. There's no budget process or a line item that somebody can talk about. The public is totally unaware."
Lippa doesn't see it that way. "I don't understand how anybody in their right mind would say we're becoming the military. We're not."
The county's 1970 combat/assault/tactical vehicle is worth $460,000. It looked absolutely nothing like it does now, when they first got it. It was a hunk of junk. They used drug forfeiture money to pay for the transport. A local company, VSE Ladysmith, donated its time to fix it up. Workers stripped it down, painted it and most importantly got the engine running again.
" Everyone's entitled to their opinion. No way shape or form are we taking anyone's rights away. This is to protect the people. You get a hostage situation, you get somebody barricaded in, why would you say that's military? We're responding to calls," said Lippa.
His special emergency responders or SERT team are training with it. He hopes he never has to use it
"Today's society we don't know what we're up against and at any given time you never know what could go on," added Lippa.
The military's program doesn't have much oversight, and that's a problem for some critics. Congressman Hank Johnson just introduced a bill, the first of its kind, to ban the military from giving police drones, assault weapons and armored vehicles just like the one in Caroline County.