The NBC10 Investigators found weapons of war in the hands of police departments across the Delaware Valley as local governments take advantage of a free Department of Defense [DoD] program to unload more than $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment.
We found local police departments armed with equipment including tanks, mine-resistant vehicles, and automatic weapons.
A review of data obtained by NBC10's Mitch Blacher shows the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has received close to 34,000 pieces of surplus military equipment from the DoD since 2012. Of that, 1,972 items are classified as tactical equipment -- tanks, ambulances, mine-resistant vehicles, night goggles and automatic weapons -- acquired between December of 1994 and July 2, 2014. The bulk is general equipment such as binoculars, accessories for weapons, computers, sleeping bags and power tools, amassed between January of 2011 and June of this year. It's all military grade gear made for the battlefield.
In New Britain Township, Bucks County, which has a population of 11,000 according to the 2010 census, the police force now maintains a mine-resistant vehicle worth $733,000 according to the government. Taxpayers had to pony up $6,000 in shipping fees to get the vehicle. Police Chief Robert Scafidi admits it's difficult to make the case that New Britain needs a vehicle able to withstand a high-powered explosion, but "I think on a regional basis you have to share and you have to have assets."
Twenty minutes away in Warwick Township, Police Chief Mark Goldberg runs a force that would have access to the mine-resistant vehicle.
"Certainly not every day and it won't be in any of our communities every day, but I can tell you twice in the last four years there were days when it was needed."
One of those days was Father's Day 2012 in Doylestown. Officers were ambushed during a domestic dispute and police used an armored car to evacuate civilians.
The state records show Philadelphia's police department had an armored truck and 255 automatic assault rifles. The department did not respond to our repeated requests to see the equipment, but did say the automatic weapons have been converted to semiautomatics. A spokesman said the department no longer has the armored truck, however, they were not able to tell us what happened to the truck or where it is now.
Mary Catherine Roper, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] in Philadelphia, challenges the need for local governments to be armed like the military. The ACLU has written a report claiming "American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized ... with almost no public discussion or oversight."
"They're accountable to the public and we're supposed to be able to ask them what they're doing and why," Roper said. "My children are out on those streets. I don't want them facing the potential of military weapons in the hand of people who do not have military training."
New Britain does have one person trained to drive the mine-resistant vehicle — the township's maintenance supervisor.
The State of New Jersey has amassed close to 15,600 pieces of equipment from the military surplus program. Close to 2,000 items are tactical equipment, which local law organizations began receiving in 1994. New Jersey State Police would not reveal which local agencies took tactical gear from the DoD program, citing security concerns.
Since the summer of 1993, the State of Delaware has been given more than 536 pieces of tactical military equipment and in the last three years, more than 23,000 general supply items from the Department of Defense. The NBC10 Investigators found Delaware state police turned down requests for mine-resistant and armored vehicles. Records show state police have accepted only non-tactical equipment like medical kits and sleeping bags.