RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The men and women in blue are looking more like men and women in green--and that's no accident.
In a special investigation, the ABC11 I-Team found more than $44 million in surplus supplies and equipment was sent from the U.S. military to police departments and sheriff's offices in North Carolina at almost no cost the local agencies themselves.
"It allows us to get some of the things we need without having to pay out of our budget, and things we get that is not afforded to us that is afforded to a much larger agency," Jack Smith, sheriff of Northampton County, said. "As you've seen in other states, when active shooters go into a school, they're well-armed and prepared."
Northampton County, a rural area near the Virginia State line, is among the largest beneficiaries in North Carolina of what's known as the 1033 Program, a measure created by Congress in the 1990s to help local governments fight what was then known as the "War on Drugs."
The 1033 Program transfers surplus weapons, vehicles and other supplies from the U.S. Department of Defense to law enforcement agencies across the country.
While the bulk of items are relatively mundane (first aid kits, clothing, computers, office supplies and even a popcorn maker), data obtained by the I-Team also shows armored vehicles, machetes, rifles and riot shields among tens of thousands of individual items transferred from the U.S. military to North Carolina law enforcement agencies.
"Many times the suspects have better equipment than we do," Sheriff Smith said. "They have better weapons in handguns, rifles and bulletproof vests. Much more expensive than what law enforcement uses. We are there to try to restore order and try to make sure everyone is safe. People with those weapons have one thing in mind, and that is to cause death and destruction and injuries."
More than 30 departments received mine resistant vehicles, including Northampton County, which look essentially like tanks designed to survive landmine attacks and ambushes. Sampson County Sheriff Office received 19 machetes, items it claimed it needed to cut down brush.
Other notable items include helicopters, M4 and M16 rifles and non-lethal weapons.
The Hope Mills Police Department is another major recipient of such equipment over the past two decades.
"With smaller municipalities, your funding levels are of course based on your locality and sometimes you may have a very legitimate need for a particular piece of equipment but there is simply no funding for that and so when you run into that situation, this is a really good alternative to fill that gap," Hope Mills Police Department Chief Joel Acciardo said. "In Hope Mills we have a number of schools and G-d forbid something should happen there, we just had no vehicle that would be available for us for victim rescue, scene mitigation or anything like that."
He said the department also uses their mine resistant vehicle for water rescues during floods.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety oversees and approves transfers into the state. Officials explained departments need to give reasons for each item requested and they are sometimes audited to ensure the agencies are properly using the item.
Still, the program has drawn scrutiny over the years, culminating with a 2014 White House report highlighting lack of transparency and oversight, along with concern over departments not receiving training on the items they received; the report also expressed concern over an increase in militarization in policing.
"Some stakeholders felt that the 'show of force' typically associated with military operations, when employed by civilian police, can weaken community trust-especially in communities with a history of strained relationships between the community and local law enforcement," the 2014 report stated.
A year later, President Barack Obama imposed limits on 1033, but President Trump rescinded those measures in 2017. Since then, an I-Team analysis of orders shipped shows transfers to central North Carolina agencies increasing 40 percent of overall items ordered versus the prior three years.
"Almost certainly you would see a decrease in violence as a result of demilitarization in policing," said Dr. Casey Delehanty, a professor at Gardner-Wedd University and author of 2017 study on the relationship of violence and the 1033 Program. "Pretty simply what we found was that departments that receive greater amounts of sort of militarized gear from the Defense Department are more likely to see civilians killed within their jurisdiction."
Despite his research, however, the professor doesn't think getting rid of the 1033 Program will significantly decrease militarization of agencies.
"I am increasingly skeptical that reforms on the edges of this are going to do the trick in terms of solving this problem that has been around for decades, if not centuries in the U.S," Delehanty said.
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Last year, a Georgia congressman introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, the bill has so far stalled in committee. Just this week, Rep. David Price (D-North Carolina) introduced the Justice in Policing Act, which calls for limiting the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
"What this bill provides for is a reexamination of that and a re-calibration of that program," Rep. Price, whose district includes parts of Wake, Durham and Orange Counties, said. "By making military surplus equipment available, we're not contributing to the problem of a police force that is antagonizing, and challenging, provoking the local community. That is not helpful."
Of course, the 1033 Program isn't the only way law enforcement agencies receive military-grade equipment. Larger agencies, in fact, such as those in Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, excluded themselves from the 1033 Program data.
A spokeswoman for the Durham County Sheriff's Office said while the agency is registered with the program, it hasn't found any items it could use in day to day operations. Raleigh Police Department and Durham Police Department did not return a request for comment.