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Fort Florida

A federal program allows police agencies nationwide to equip themselves like the military, but with little training and not much oversight. An analysis in Florida shows a stockpile of unused weapons and overarmed communities.

By CHUCK MURPHY and SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003


The U.S. government needed M-16A1 No. 4814917 to kill the enemy in Vietnam.

But by the summer of 1972, when workers at Colt's Manufacturing Co. fitted the parts and stamped the rifle with its serial number, the war was winding down.

Eventually, the military shipped the rifle to a Marine support unit in Okinawa, Japan. In 1986, it made its way to an Army warehouse in Anniston, Ala., where it sat in a sealed wooden crate for 12 years and five months.

On the night of Dec. 16, 1999, No. 4814917 finally saw action.

The place: a suburban office park north of Orlando.

The target: a suicidal, cocaine-addled former minor-league baseball pitcher named Jay Scott Duff.

The shooter: Seminole County sheriff's Sgt. Gene Fry.

"It was a massacre of bullets," said Alice Ann-Marie Kenney, manager of the office park, who cowered with her 14-year-old godson as stray bullets from several deputies' guns pierced cars and businesses around them.

Duff, 33, was killed.

The battle rifle Fry fired that night is among more than 20,000 weapons that have cascaded out of military warehouses and into police arsenals nationwide as part of a little-known partnership between the federal and state governments.

Since 1990, the programs have led to the creation of dozens of police armies around the country outfitted with machine guns, sniper rifles, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and grenade launchers.

But while those civilian agencies are increasingly equipped like the military, they operate with just a fraction of the rules the military follows to keep weapons from falling into the wrong hands and to ensure their safe, proper use.

A St. Petersburg Times examination of Florida's participation in the military surplus system found lapses at every level:

** An M-16 capable of firing 30 rounds a half-mile in the blink of an eye was stolen last fall from a Miami SWAT officer after he left it in the trunk of a police rental car parked outside his house.

** In Jasper, a town with three traffic lights near the Georgia border, the Police Department has as many M-16s (seven) as officers. But there is no one qualified to train the officers in how to use them, and the rifles are stored in a gun rack in a sergeant's office.

** Some local agencies inflated crime rates to get military weapons. For example, the Panhandle town of Lynn Haven (pop. 12,451) reported a 900 percent rise in armed robberies, without telling regulators that the raw number of robberies rose from one to 10, then fell to one again just as quickly.

** The surplus bonanza has quietly turned the Orange County Sheriff's Office into Florida's biggest military police army -- with 216 former military assault rifles and 16 surplus grenade launchers. Nearby Marion County created an air force with 23 free military helicopters, two twin turboprop airplanes and other equipment -- originally valued at $41-million -- before its former sheriff came under scrutiny for trading surplus chopper parts.

** State regulators never documented an effort to account for the weapons until last fall, three months after the Times sought records about the program. They were unaware of the location of some weapons or of incidents of improper use and stockpiling until the newspaper asked about the problems.

** Federal officials may have approved more weapons transfers than the rules allow to as many as 25 Florida agencies, including some of the state's smallest. And the Pentagon did not know that Florida had lost track of weapons and that some police agencies had violated the program's rules and policies.

The spread of military equipment is not just spurring a local arms race. It is also producing a military police culture that critics say increases hazards to innocent civilians.

The "militarization of Mayberry," Peter Kraska, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University, calls it.

While big-city SWAT teams and sheriff's offices have long had access to automatic guns, military rifles give them more bullet velocity, longer range and more killing force than most have ever used before.

"You see these departments with M-16s, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and tanks, and I haven't figured out what any of that has to do with police work," said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association. "They're not policing war zones."

But the low cost of the rifles -- less than $1,000 is enough to outfit every member of a small town police department -- is an irresistible lure to some agencies, even if they can't afford the training to use the weapons safely.

State officials say they are tightening accounting procedures to manage weapons transfers better. They also have begun inspecting weapons and have asked the Defense Department to expedite an audit of their operations.

"We've been attempting to get everything in working order," said Rosalyn M. Bruce, director of the state's fleet management and federal property assistance programs.

Defense Department officials, while acknowledging some shortcomings, say the weapons disbursement program is necessary to help fight crime and terrorism.

"This program provides equipment that many of these agencies would never be able to afford otherwise," said Fred Baillie, who oversees the program for the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency.

But he added, "We're looking at tightening up procedures -- not just for the weapons but for other high-sensitive items."

In a memo to police and sheriffs on Jan. 1, the lieutenant colonel who manages the military's law enforcement support office said that the federal government may expand audits and plans to ask more questions before giving away rifles.

"With the ongoing events in the world today, Department of Defense (DoD) Auditing Agencies are becoming increasingly more concerned with the property issued to our customers," wrote Lt. Col. Thomas F. Small.

Under the program, the military has unloaded a mountain of sought-after equipment to thousands of local agencies nationwide. The items -- which Congress encouraged the Pentagon to give away -- range from second-hand computers, gas masks and night-vision goggles to guns, armored vehicles and aircraft.

While the equipment originally cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, police essentially get the stuff for free, paying only transportation costs and a state administrative fee. For example, an M-16 that cost federal taxpayers about $400 might go to a police department for less than $5.

Yet the honey pot of arms flowing into police arsenals comes with downstream costs. Cops can spend tens of thousands a year on ammunition, training, secure storage, accessories and liability claims if a weapon happens to miss its intended target and hit something, or someone, else.

To analyze the system, the Times tracked 1,941 military weapons approved for transfer to the 78 agencies in Florida that have participated in the weapons giveaway. They include the Tampa Police Department and sheriff's offices in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.

The Hillsborough and Pinellas sheriff's offices and St. Petersburg and Clearwater police issue automatic weapons to some specially trained officers, but they have never applied for military surplus rifles.

Two agencies that did apply now say it was a mistake. They want to send the weapons back.

"I don't think terrorists are likely to visit here," said police Chief Kenneth Holding in Trenton, a town of 1,600 east of Gainesville, explaining his decision to transfer the department's two rifles to another agency. A previous chief obtained them, Holding said.

But in most of Florida there are no plans to retreat. In fact, the programs used to hand out military weapons and gear are now poised to expand as local police shore up homeland defenses after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A glut of weapons

In the 1980s, the Army began declaring M-16A1 rifles surplus as soldiers switched to the M-16A2, which the military considered more efficient, more reliable, more controllable and more accurate. It fires a maximum of three rounds with a single trigger pull, an upgrade from the A1 model, which is capable of firing a 30-round clip with a trigger pull.

Army warehouses began to get hundreds of thousands of M-16A1s. The government had to figure out what to do with them.

The disposition of surplus weapons has stirred debate since the end of the Spanish-American War. That's when gun enthusiasts pushed Congress into cheaply selling second-hand military weapons instead of destroying them.

After the Cold War ended, the Pentagon began to dispose of a glut of weapons by shipping vast amounts of armored vehicles, helicopters and infantry weapons to allies in Europe and Asia.

Then, saying "American needs must come first," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pushed a 1990 amendment allowing the military to give excess weapons to U.S. police agencies to fight drugs.

The program proved irresistible to many police departments, especially those with tiny budgets.

In 1996, Congress dropped the requirement that the gear had to be used for counter-drug activities.

In Florida, where supervision fell to the Department of Management Services, there were problems almost from the start, records show.

Despite an agreement with the Pentagon to assure that weapons were properly registered and used the way police promised, the state never closely monitored military weapons after local agencies received them.

State officials never enforced a requirement that agencies report within a year on where they store surplus weapons and how they use them.

Instead, the state simply rubber stamped most requests, overlooking the pretexts that some police departments invented to obtain weapons.

Police departments in Fort Myers and Lynn Haven and sheriff's offices in Baker, Gulf and Hernando counties wrote nearly identical request letters saying they needed military firepower to counter seizures of "unprecedented numbers" of assault rifles, including AK-47s, SKS, and AR-15s.

But Lynn Haven, Gulf and Baker couldn't produce a single report of such a seizure before they sent their request letters to the state.

"I don't recall any. It seems like we might have gotten one (seizure) -- and I can't even say for sure that happened," said Baker Sheriff Joey Dobson, who cited "unprecedented numbers" of seizures in a 1998 request letter.

His county of about 23,000, which shares a border with Georgia and the Okefenokee swamp, received six M-16s. The county, which has never used the weapons, averages one murder and 10 robberies a year, state statistics show.

Chris Butterworth, the state employee who supervised Florida's participation in the program from its inception until July 2001, said his staff usually did a "paper confirmation" of each local agency's request.

"We did not assess the request in terms of its accuracy and validity," Butterworth said. "We didn't have the law enforcement backgrounds." He added that the federal government, not the state, is ultimately responsible for approving weapons transfers.

Baillie, the federal official who oversees the program, disputed that. "It's up to the state to validate (request) letters," he said.

As a result, some of Florida's most pastoral places now have surplus military weapons -- despite letters that embellished local crime problems.

In a 1997 letter requesting 22 M-16s and two M-21 sniper rifles, Sheriff Frank Owens of Columbia County (pop. about 57,000) in North Florida wrote that his deputies had recovered enough ammunition from drug criminals "to wage a protracted war."

In 1999, then-Sheriff Edward Miller of Okeechobee County (pop. 36,000) called his county "a prime area for air narcotics smuggling."

Both counties got machine guns. Yet Okeechobee sheriff's spokesman Rodney Rucks said his agency has had no seizures of narcotics smuggled by air since January 1998. And in Columbia, staff attorney Jeff Siegmeister said he was unable to provide any reports on which the sheriff had based his crime-war assertion.

Three stoplights, seven M-16s

Oversight failures extend beyond the state.

Under federal rules, agencies are not supposed to receive M-14s and M-16s for more than 20 percent of their sworn officers. But that hasn't stopped the military from giving some agencies too many rifles.

In Jasper, the town of 1,780 with three traffic lights and seven officers, four or five of those officers fired the seven M-16s at a range once, said Chief Frank Osborn. Then, a year ago, a former sergeant and his brother, a Marine, took all the rifles to a range near Hamilton Correctional Institution for test firing.

"It's been awhile since we had an instructor for them," Osborn said.

Defense Logistics Agency spokesman Jack Hooper said federal managers are looking into whether weapons transfers to Jasper and other Florida towns and counties violate the "20 percent rule."

When the Defense Logistics Agency audited Florida's participation in the surplus program in September 2000, it described the state's management in glowing terms.

But that audit was hardly thorough. Records show that inspectors visited only two local agencies and failed to notice that one, the Lee County Sheriff's Office, had improperly converted 10 M-14 rifles obtained for antidrug work into ceremonial weapons.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that military weapons in Florida have been stockpiled, traded and misused -- and sometimes ended up in the hands of bad guys.

In 1998, the Marion County Sheriff's Office came under scrutiny after it bartered surplus helicopters that it planned to use for marijuana eradication. No one was charged, but former Sheriff Ken Ergle was sentenced to house arrest after pleading guilty to an unrelated theft charge.

When Ed Dean took over as Marion sheriff in November 1998, he stopped the trade in surplus parts. He decided to keep the office's surplus rifles and a military bomb robot. But he transferred 21 of the 23 helicopters. "I felt that we had gone too far," Dean said. "I wanted to bring it back to a realistic level."

An investigation into the trading of surplus helicopters and parts is also under way in Charlotte County.

John Kuczwanski, a spokesman for the state agency that manages the weapons program, defended Florida's oversight. "We do have certain responsibilities and we follow those outlined in the agreement (with the federal government)," he said.

But the Times found that Florida's inability to track items by computer -- coupled with poor accounting practices and security lapses at some local police arsenals -- compounds the potential for fraud and abuse.

Unlike Florida, Georgia can track every surplus weapon on a computer.

"Our priority is to go out and hit every single agency that gets weapons within 12 or 18 months," said Don Sherrod, director of Georgia's surplus program. He also is president of the National Law Enforcement Support Association, which promotes military surplus programs. Without commenting directly on Florida's management, he added, "Without good controls, there can be abuse."

Lax controls left both Florida and federal officials unaware that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office had loaned military guns without permission and that other police departments -- in Delray Beach, Palm Bay, Winter Springs and Sweetwater -- had either failed to register some of their military weapons with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or made mistakes on registration forms.

In addition, six agencies, including the Hernando Sheriff's Office, erroneously recorded serial numbers in their internal inventories. They blamed clerical errors.

The Times could not trace the disposition of all the surplus items or determine how many Florida agencies have inaccurate or incomplete inventory records for their military arsenals.

The reason: at least 24 police and sheriff's departments, including the Hernando Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department, said homeland defense laws enacted in Florida in 2001 allow them to keep all or part of their records secret -- even if those records pinpoint weaknesses in their security systems.

The Hernando Sheriff's Office, which snapped up 60 surplus weapons, refused to let the Times photograph them. But Lt. Joseph Paez said, "There have been no M-14s or M-16s lost or stolen."

Missing: one machine gun

The military has a vast, costly system to foil gun thieves. It requires bases to install sensors and alarms, harden walls, power up databases and train guards. Under even the lowest-level terrorist threat conditions, servicemen and women review security every day. Vehicles containing weapons must be kept in secure areas or under constant watch by armed soldiers.

Local departments don't live by the same rules. They sometimes keep battle rifles in the trunks of unguarded cars.

That's where Miami Officer Kevin McNair left his M-16 before dawn on Sept. 26. Awakened by a sound outside at 3:19 a.m., he found that someone had jimmied a window in his unmarked Monte Carlo outside his home in Miramar, north of Miami. Then the thief popped the lever to open the trunk.

His rifle was stolen, along with 290 bullets and other police accessories, including a Taser and a bulletproof vest.

McNair's gas mask, handcuffs, a stun grenade, a knife and 130 of the bullets turned up later that day. But the M-16 -- reportedly worth as much as $10,000 on the global black market -- is still missing.

For 10 weeks, no one in the federal government knew about the theft. When McNair reported it, he provided the wrong serial number (he gave detectives the number for his vest, not the gun), according to Capt. Keith Dunn of the Miramar Police Department.

As a result, Miramar police entered the wrong number in the state's missing-gun database, which feeds information to a national database. They didn't correct the error until 10 weeks later, when the Times asked the FBI about it.

McNair, 39, who was described by his supervisors as an officer who rarely makes mistakes, did not respond to requests for an interview.

After inquiries from the Times, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office vowed to buy gun safes for its military weapons. Others said they would review security systems. But the Miami Police Department plans no internal investigation of the theft, said Sgt. Robert Baker, the SWAT team's trainer.

"Do you know how many M-16s are floating around out there? I bet thousands," Baker said, adding that the weapon likely will turn up at a pawn shop, a gun show or a robbery.

To Baker, more alarming than the theft was the way 35 M-16s made their way to Miami.

"I received them through cardboard boxes through the U.S. mail," he said. "I was stunned."

No guidelines, few questions

Florida's surplus weapons plan requires law enforcement agencies to "provide training . . . in the use of specialized equipment." But the state offers no guidelines for what that training should be.

In larger cities, police departments typically require as much as a week of classes and shooting with monthly practice.

The Ocala Police Department has a carefully crafted policy on when an M-16 is safe to use: Officers are usually allowed to fire long guns only at visible targets wearing body armor or carrying a rifle themselves.

The Miami Police Department, which has come under fire for a pattern of reckless shootings, forbids its officers from firing on automatic without approval of a commanding officer. They must turn a switch on the M-16A1 to make the weapon fire on semiautomatic.

Rifles now used by U.S. troops, too, generally don't fire on automatic but are restricted to a maximum of three rounds with a single pull of the trigger.

"I doubt if you'd ever see an order' to fire on automatic, said Sgt. Baker, the Miami SWAT trainer.

But at the Tampa Police Department, which acquired 35 M-16s late last year, officers are trusted to do whatever they think is best.

"As far as a supervisor giving permission, no," said spokesman Kevin Howell. "Since the officers are trained on the weapon and the policies governing their use, a supervisor does not have to give permission prior to the use of the weapon."

While SWAT officers in Tampa, Miami and elsewhere get specialized training, the courses most patrol deputies and officers take pale next to military guidelines. The Army's marksmanship training manual alone is 96 pages, covering everything from night fire to properly aligning the rifle sights. Recruits train nearly constantly.

By comparison, the Seminole Sheriff's Office rifle course taught at a local community college lasts three days and comes with a 19-page manual. There is one night of range firing.

And in Gulf County in North Florida, deputies get a two-hour familiarization course and some periodic range practice.

"We use them just like pistols -- when we need them," said Gulf Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who keeps an M-16 in a locked gun rack behind his desk. "Because of the way the bad guys are armed, you really don't know when you're going to use them."

Some police officers say that with proper training, the use of military weapons can reduce loss of life, not add to it.

But in Florida, there is no law barring untrained officers from using the weapons. The 19-member Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission requires that officers demonstrate proficiency with a handgun, but not with military rifles.

Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Daron Diecidue, chairman of the commission, said the members don't want to create rules that would work in Miami but not in rural Washington County.

"The sheriffs and police chiefs have told us, 'Please don't mandate to us. We don't need to be told these things,' " Diecidue said. "The mission of the commission is to provide basic training. Not optimum training."

The Legislature, which could mandate additional training, has declined to step in. So, Diecidue said, the state essentially counts on lawyers and lawsuits to set the standards for advanced training.

Today, many departments say they've never taken the military weapons out of their gun racks.

On wealthy Jupiter Island (pop. 620) along the Treasure Coast, police Chief Michael Loffredo didn't even remember he had military weapons, though he personally registered four M-14s with the federal firearms bureau in May 2000.

Some patrol officers, including those in Winter Springs, Palm Bay and Longwood, and deputies in Seminole County, ride around with M-16s in their cars.

In Tallahassee, which like some other communities has converted some of its rifles to semiautomatic fire only, Lt. Chris Connell said an M-16 is so intimidating that just getting one out of the car can be enough to disperse a crowd.

On any given shift, most deputies and some detectives at the Citrus Sheriff's Office have one of the agency's 30 surplus M-16s or another military-style rifle nearby. They say they plan to use them only in single-shot mode, not as full machine guns.

With a group of black-clad detectives gathered around him in January, Citrus Sgt. Vern Blevins explained the versatility of the M-16s they were holding.

"I'm going to tell you, there are very few situations where the call out is 'shots fired' where this would not be my primary weapon," Blevins said at a two-day marksmanship course that is mandatory for any officer who carries an M-16. "The handgun is the backup."

A shattered figurine

In Keystone Heights near Jacksonville, the Clay County Sheriff's Office used a military surplus weapon in September 2000 after Angela Stine called for help for her distraught husband, George. He barricaded himself in a house with a shotgun and exchanged fire with two deputies -- one with a Glock handgun, the other with a surplus M-16.

The deputies cranked out shots that flew through the house but missed Stine, then 51.

The Sheriff's Office concluded its deputies acted properly. But it paid Mrs. Stine about $1,000 for damage to the house: bullet holes in walls, the ceiling and the refrigerator. A bullet landed in a teacup and another shattered a figurine in a cabinet, said Mrs. Stine, who was not in the house during the shooting.

She bristled at the suggestion that the Sheriff's Office needed military firepower. "I called for help, and that's not the help I called for," she said. "It was a miracle my husband was not killed."

Jay Scott Duff, the former minor league pitcher, was also distraught.

After playing for several Cincinnati Reds' minor league teams, he had slipped into using crack cocaine and twice attempted suicide. The Seminole Sheriff's Office put out an "endangered adult" alert after Duff's wife reported that he was missing and might hurt himself.

Duff, a father of two from Lake Mary, also was wanted for questioning in two robberies when a Longwood police officer pulled over his Ford van that Thursday night in 1999. Duff, who owned an auto detailing business, jumped out and took cover in the lot of the office park, where several people were working.

Mrs. Kenney had just finished wrapping Christmas packages when her godson saw police outside. She had taken three or four steps out the door of her office, when she heard a deputy yelling at Duff to drop the gun.

The next 24 minutes -- videotaped by a low-hovering helicopter -- were consumed by a standoff between dozens of officers and Duff, who paced behind a parked car "like a caged animal," said Seminole sheriff's Deputy Kevin Wilkinson.

"He brought his hands up in the air like he was going to give up."

Instead, Duff bolted around the end of the car with both hands extended, holding what officers thought was a gun and drawing fire from six of them. Seminole sheriff's Deputy Tim Smith said he thought he saw a muzzle flash as Duff fired two rounds.

Sgt. Gene Fry, who had just made a perfect score in his M-16 course at Valencia Community College, said he was kneeling at the corner of the building about 14 yards from Duff.

"(I) fired multiple rounds 'til I saw him hit," Fry told investigators later. "I feared for my safety."

Seventeen rounds moved toward Duff and the businesses behind him at 3,250 feet per second.

Longwood police did not use their M-16s or handguns that night.

"Because of the proximity of the long gun to the suspect, that would not have met our criteria for deploying long guns," said Longwood Chief Tom Jackson. "None of the Longwood personnel fired a round at all."

Of the 48 bullets fired, 14 hit Duff. At least one -- a lethal shot to the head -- came from Fry's rifle, police reports say.

Bullets also pierced a metal door of a business behind Duff, tore a hole in a bathroom wall and cracked a sink.

Mrs. Kenney, who was on the phone with the 911 operator, was asked by the dispatcher to keep her eye on the scene out the window.

"Literally, a pane of glass separated me from a bullet," Mrs. Kenney said. "I believe they were justified for shooting, but it was horrible."

Investigators found holes in buildings, cars and light poles. Deputy Smith, caught in the crossfire, was struck in the left leg by a ricochet. Deputy Nelson Pitre found a lead fragment in his bullet-proof vest.

Investigators later determined there were no muzzle flashes from Duff that night, no shots fired by the suspect at all.

The Sheriff's Office said he had a broken toy gun.

Seminole Sheriff Donald Eslinger described Duff's death as a suicide. He found no policy violations by his deputies, though his office paid for the damaged cars and businesses as well as a $300 medical bill for the injured deputy. In the future, the office said, deputies should consider "crossfire when deploying at a tactical incident."

Through the Seminole Sheriff's Office spokesman, Fry and Eslinger declined to comment further.

Expanding amid secrecy

Some criminal justice experts worry that, without adequate training, the growing deployment of military weapons is bound to produce accidents, unjustified use of automatic fire (referred to in the military as "spray and pray") and needless deaths.

"These weapons are going to produce casualties well beyond what they're trying to prevent," said Hampton, a former District of Columbia patrol officer whose association represents 15,000 cops nationwide. "The problem is there's no legislation on how they should be used."

Kraska, the professor who coined the phrase the "militarization of Mayberry," said Pentagon giveaways also feed a mindset in many departments that they are not officers serving a community but soldiers at war.

"The paramilitary culture that goes along with these weapons is culturally intoxicating to a lot of police officers," Kraska said.

Not all of them.

Clearwater's SWAT head, Lt. Jim Steffens, said he was unaware the weapons were available.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he would not consider giving patrol officers an automatic weapon in the densely populated city.

"We have to consider our environment here," Harmon said. "You shoot one of those rounds and where does it go? And if it misses, what does it hit?"

In Pinellas, the sheriff's SWAT coordinator, Lt. Dan Simovich, said the SWAT team prefers other automatic weapons purchased on the open market. With its long barrel and high velocity, the M-16 is not particularly suited for work in serving search warrants or firing in urban areas. As for surplus M-16s, Simovich said, the amount of training that would be required before patrol deputies could carry them would make them a questionable choice as a patrol rifle.

Some agencies, like the Polk sheriff, had already decided to convert patrol rifles to single-shot fire. Others are doing it after inquiries from the Times. And the Defense Department announced last month it would offer kits to police agencies to make that possible.

In the Panhandle, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office has decided to get the kits.

"I said to my command staff, 'We're a civilian law enforcement agency, not a combat unit.' I said, 'Why do we need this (automatic weapons)?' " said Okaloosa Chief Deputy Fred Cobb. "They really couldn't answer."

In Lake Placid, a town of about 1,700 southeast of Tampa, the six-member Police Department has decided it has no use for its surplus semiautomatic M-14 rifles.

"Some of the guys had them in their cars. I took them out of there because I just thought they were too much weapon for a town our size," said Lake Placid Chief Phil Williams. "I just didn't like the idea of that much firepower being available here."

He transferred the rifles to Washington County, an equally rural place north of Panama City with a population of about 21,000.

As local police and sheriffs feel more responsibility for homeland defense, the effort to put military weapons in civilian hands remains in high gear -- and increasingly their expanding role in everyday policing is occurring in secret.

In Orange County, sheriff's officials won't say what they do with their 216 M-16s and 16 grenade launchers or where they are. They wouldn't let reporters see how the SWAT team trains with them.

Sheriff Kevin Beary, who has lobbied for the expansion of federal surplus programs, wouldn't comment for this story. Beary's $190,000 renovation and use of a surplus helicopter for lobbying purposes drew fire in 2001.

Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage, who has criticized the Sheriff's Office for a high rate of civilian shootings, said he was unaware of the size of the county's military arsenal.

The buildup demands an explanation, he said.

"We have the right to know how people are trained to use these weapons and under what circumstances they've been authorized to use them," Hartage said.

"The big question is: Why haven't they told the public? And what are they gearing up for?"

-- Researcher Kitty Bennett, computer assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg and Donnilah McClendon of the Times staff contributed to this report.

About this report

Through a public records request, the Times obtained documents from the state Department of Management Services showing all requests and approvals of surplus military weapons transfers. Times reporters also reviewed forms showing the serial numbers of former military weapons registered with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Times then made public records requests of all law enforcement agencies that participated in the program, asking for documents related to how they deployed the weapons, where they stored them and how they trained officers to use them.

At first, most agencies were responsive. But after the Jacksonville Airport Police and Pensacola Police Department raised homeland defense objections, many agencies followed their lead.

The Times also interviewed officials at most of the 78 agencies that received approval for weapons, as well as program managers at the Management Services Department and the federal Defense Logistics Agency. Reporters also visited more than a dozen departments and reviewed federal records of weapons transfers.

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