First of two parts.
Sixteen law enforcement agencies in Illinois asked the federal government for a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle -- the armored vehicles that protect soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan from improvised explosive device blasts.
Seven others requested different kinds of armored vehicles, some that weigh 6 tons and stand 10 feet high.
Five agencies requested bayonets. Nine asked for armored combat helmets used in battle. More than 200 agencies asked for M-16 and M-14 military assault rifles that have been used in wars from Vietnam to Iraq.
All of their requests were approved.
In total, more than 450 Illinois law enforcement agencies have gotten more than $66 million worth of free surplus military equipment -- ranging from night vision goggles and bandages to high-powered rifles and tanks -- through federal program 1033 of the Law Enforcement Support Office, according to documents obtained by the Daily Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Now, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the amount of military equipment coming back from the front lines will only increase. The few suburbs who have eschewed the giveaway because the free equipment is too old say they may get interested as more modern pieces become available.
But the program is also coming under increased scrutiny since pictures of Ferguson, Missouri police in battle gear went viral late last year. The photos and videos showed Ferguson police clad in military armor, driving tanks and pointing military rifles at then-peaceful protesters.
Dozens of suburban police departments have the same equipment.
The federal surplus program and the Ferguson riots have fueled a national conversation about the militarization of local police departments. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and President Barack Obama have since asked the U.S. Department of Defense for a review of the program.
"When you drill down you realize that very small departments have a lot of these things," said Jim Bueermann, executive director of the Police Foundation, which researches and advocates for best practices in American policing. "I'm not saying that's wrong, but those should be red flags for someone to say, 'Why do you need it?'"
A small number of suburbs, including Arlington Heights and Schaumburg, aren't currently asking for free equipment.
"We looked at the equipment available back in 2008, but it wasn't cost-effective to ship it here and some of the equipment wasn't state-of-the-art or was outdated," said Arlington Heights Sgt. Rick Boyle.
However, the equipment that is coming back from the Middle East now could persuade Arlington Heights to take a second look, he said.
Schaumburg, however, just says "no thanks."
"Basically, we can satisfy our own needs without it," said Schaumburg Lt. Shawn Green. If a large-scale situation comes up in Schaumburg, Green said officers would get help from surrounding departments as well as county and state police.
"Some of these programs look enticing," Green said. "But if there's not a need for it, then we're not going to get something just to say we have it."
They are the exception, the documents show, among many suburbs with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of military equipment in their arsenals.
More rifles than officers
Suburban police departments are grateful that the federal government provides equipment they could never afford. It isn't all heavy artillery -- thousands of free bandages, first-aid kits and office supplies help save taxpayer money, officials say. They've also turned former military buses and ambulances into mobile crime scene response vehicles and use former military trucks to rescue residents in floods.
Wheeling, for example, got 50 loose leaf binders, 70 pairs of ballistic goggles and 10 network servers that help their computer systems run faster. They also got drafting equipment that helps officers reconstruct accident scenes, a rifle rack for storage, and athletic and sporting equipment for tactical training, said Deputy Chief Todd Wolff.
Naperville went to the program for 500 bandages, 85 first-aid kits and 85 safety glasses, according to the documents.
"We can always use first-aid supplies," Sgt. Bill Davis said. "This helps us with budgeting and saves the city and the department money."
Naperville also got 10 paintball guns, which Davis said are for training and simulations, not play.
But it's the heavy artillery that gets the most attention.
The DuPage County sheriff's office received a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle in July. It hasn't been used yet, but Sgt. Randy Groh said it will be handy to protect officers responding to hostage, active shooter or barricaded gunmen situations.
"When you're the guy getting shot at, you want all the protection you can get," Groh said. "People see a big vehicle like an MRAP and they say 'Oh my gosh,' but it's nothing more than a truck with heavy armor. There's no missiles on it or anything like that."
The vehicle is worth nearly $700,000 and is being retrofitted to look less like it belongs on the battlefield, but as it weighs in at 18 tons, the MRAP may have a hard time blending in.
Round Lake Park, Winthrop Harbor, Waukegan, Spring Grove, Plainfield, the sheriff's departments in Kane, McHenry and Kendall counties and the Cook County office of Homeland Security also have MRAPs or other large armored vehicles, according to the documents.
"We are part of a regional SWAT team that covers most of Northeastern Illinois, so we got the MRAP to add it to the inventory," said Round Lake Park Deputy Chief Dan Burch.
Round Lake Park is fitting its MRAP with lights and sirens and repainting it to look more like a police vehicle. It is being stored at the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System facility in Glenview.
Officers will be specially trained to drive the vehicle, Burch said.
With only 12 full-time sworn officers in Round Lake Park, the number of M-16s the town received -- 19 -- now outnumbers cops on the street. Each officer has one, Burch said.
"It saved us a ton of money," he said.
Some of the other items, such as night vision goggles and cold weather gear, are things Burch said the small department would not have been able to afford otherwise.
Earlier this year Wheeling got a Humvee that Wolff said police will use to rescue residents in emergency weather situations such as flooding or a blizzard.
"It's not something we would have invested in without this program," Wolff said.
The DuPage County Sheriff's Department also received 36 M-16s and seven M-14s for its SWAT team as well as two explosive-detecting robots,
"We're saving money and re-utilizing equipment that was already paid for and would otherwise not be used," Groh said. "It's a huge cost savings, and if it saves a life in the process, what a wonderful program."
The federal 1033 program isn't just for municipal and county police departments.
College of DuPage police received 14 M-16 rifles, while Benedictine University police in Lisle got two M-16s and a utility truck worth $40,000.
Even the DuPage County Forest Preserve Police, a force of 25 sworn officers, received four M-16s, seven M-14s and five .45-caliber automatic pistols.
"We applied because the items we received are free," said Deputy Chief Phil Gunnell.
The M-16s will be put in patrol cars, but the M-14s will be used only for honor and color guard purposes, he said. The handguns, mainly from the Vietnam and Korean War eras, will be used on an outdoor range for training purposes only, Gunnell said. He said forest preserve police have not yet fired the military style weapons at an assailant.
"I can't put a specific 'when' on (using) them," Gunnell said, "But they are an option for our officers to use if the situation arises."
• Tomorrow: The debate over militarizing local police.