Kansas law enforcement agencies operate with U.S. surplus firearms, armored vehicles, rocket launchers

Data from ACLU of Kansas’ trove of information spotlights flow of military surplus equipment

ACLU of Kansas' new public data website contains information on election, racial justice and law enforcement trends that include lists of the $7 million in military surplus armored vehicles, assault rifles and other equipment received by the Salina Police Department and other Kansas law enforcement agencies. (Kansas Reflector)
ACLU of Kansas' new public data website contains information on election, racial justice and law enforcement trends that include lists of the $7 million in military surplus armored vehicles, assault rifles and other equipment received by the Salina Police Department and other Kansas law enforcement agencies. (Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA – Police departments in the cities of Coffeyville, Olathe and Shawnee and the Lyon, Coffey and Sedgwick county sheriff’s departments took delivery of mine-resistant armored vehicles that cost taxpayers $412,000 to $733,000 each.

Pittsburg, Salina, Garden City, Topeka, Ottawa, Junction City, El Dorado, Riley County, Ford County and Franklin County law enforcement agencies stocked their shelves with 5.56 mm assault rifles. Fort Hays State University police and officers in Salina, Leavenworth, Ottawa, Hutchinson, McPherson and Finney County were among agencies that got ahold of 7.62 mm sniper rifles. Lenexa police went for real swagger when acquiring surplus military equipment at almost no cost: Their 107 mm mortar carrier had an original price tag of $205,000.

The Kansas Department of Corrections acquired nine armored trucks, which originally cost the U.S. military $585,000. The FBI office in Topeka secured 150 night vision viewers, with a price tag in excess of $330,000. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Wichita received 11 robots, price tag $110,000, for handling bombs.

Information about assets acquired by law enforcement agencies operating in Kansas was drawn from a new public-access database developed by the ACLU of Kansas to promote government transparency and civic engagement.

“Our local law enforcement officers do not need U.S. military tactical equipment in order to protect the public,” said Nadine Johnson, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.

 

Data mining project

The website was built by data visualization firm MySidewalk and features information on Kansas elections and voting, immigration, racial justice, incarceration and law enforcement. The racial justice and policing section, for example, presented statistics on use of force, law enforcement spending by county, immigration activities and arrest disparities by race.

The ACLU of Kansas has developed a public online site to promote government transparency on voting rights, racial justice and law enforcement issues. The site includes data on the $7 million in U.S. military surplus equipment in the hands of Kansas law enforcement agencies. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
ACLU of Kansas developed a public website to promote government transparency on voting rights, racial justice, immigration and other issues. The site includes data on $7 million in U.S. military surplus assault vehicles, firearms and other equipment in hands of law enforcement agencies operating in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“Democracy demands participation,” Johnson said. “We are offering one more way for people to stay educated, engaged, and empowered. We want this data to spur greater civic engagement and more informed and thoughtful public policy-making.”

Documentation showed people of color in Kansas were disproportionately represented in arrest data from 2015 to 2019. People of color were 33.4% of all arrests in the period, but accounted for 23.9% of the state’s population. Black people made up 19.2% of arrests, yet measured 5.6% of the population.

Voter participation in Kansas trailed the U.S. average from 2012 to 2016 by significant amounts. Here’s the percentage-point disparity among Kansans: Asians, down 31 points, Native Americans, down 18 points; Blacks, down 10 points; and Hispanics, down 9 points.

Kansas ranked 32nd in the nation in the share of its population in prison through 2018. While this was a lower rate than the national average, Kansas’ rate increased in recent years as the national rate declined.

The ACLU’s data project also revealed state and local governments in Kansas spent around $872 million on policing during 2018, the year for which complete information was available. This amounted to nearly $300 for every person in the state, which was below the national average of $363 per person.

 

Military surplus

Questions have been raised, especially during 2020, about spending priorities of U.S. law enforcement agencies amid the Black Lives Matter movement and protests regarding police shootings of Blacks. There have been calls for reform of law enforcement budgets to emphasize mental health realities of people encountered by officers, while finding ways to de-escalate confrontations without reliance on lethal force.

While Kansas law enforcement spending significant increased between 2016 and 2017, the data mining project found it remained relatively stable between 2017 and 2018. Average state and local spending on enforcement spending did increase at a higher overall rate than the United States as whole.

Back the Blue rally in downtown Topeka ahead of a special council meeting to discuss potential police reform. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Hundreds of police supporters demonstrate as part of a Back the Blue rally in downtown Topeka ahead of a special Topeka City Council meeting in August to discuss potential police reform by Black Lives Matter and others. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In terms of surplus military equipment, Congress has allowed transfer of material to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for more than 20 years. The Marshall Project used a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire data on type, amount and value of equipment handed over to law enforcement, including agencies in Kansas.

While Kansas agencies received more than $7 million worth of surplus from the U.S. Department of Defense, the recipients paid little or nothing for the firearms, vehicles and other objects. Values in the ACLU analysis reflected the cost of acquisition by the Department of Defense.

Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka police chief and a representative of three law enforcement organizations in Kansas, said the military equipment was comparable to what soldiers in a war zone relied upon, but tactics of domestic police officers differed greatly from rules of engagement issued to soldiers.

“Too much of that concern hinges on the equipment rather than tactics,” said Klumpp, who believes the robust hardware saved lives. “You don’t need them often. When you need them, you need them now.”

He said it wasn’t sufficient to have an armored vehicle in Wichita and expect it to be deployed in a timely way for a crisis in Dodge City or Independence. The bullet-deflecting vehicles can be used to extract victims from harm’s way, safely negotiate with assaulants and to perform assaults, he said.

 

‘Chilling effect’

Klumpp, who represents the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police and Kansas Peace Officers Association, said vehicles, firearms and other assets obtained as military surplus were sought by law enforcement agencies in response to escalation of the capabilities of criminals.

He said the mindset of law enforcement agencies changed in 1997 when two bank robbers wearing homemade armor and equipped with assault rifles took on Los Angeles Police Department officers in one of the biggest shootouts in U.S. history. The assailants died, while 12 police officers and eight civilians were wounded. LAPD officers typically carried 9mm pistols, .38-caliber revolvers or 12-gauge shotguns. Their arsenal proved inadequate, given the robbers were using armor-piercing rounds. In addition to weapons in hands of SWAT officers, LAPD appropriated AR-15 rifles from a nearby gunshop in an attempt to compete. The assailants fired an estimated 1,100 rounds and police officers discharged about 650 rounds in the firefight.

Johnson, the executive director of ACLU of Kansas, said law enforcement should be about protection and service — not combat. The acquisition and deployment of military-grade tactical equipment and surveillance technologies pose a significant threat to the public’s welfare, civil rights and civil liberties, she said. In addition, she said, reliance on Department of Defense gear has a disparate impact on communities of color, she said.

The displays of police hardware in the streets during Black Lives Matter events was a tactical mistake, said Lauren Bonds, legal director of ACLU of Kansas.

“Using military hardware to respond to protests, whether they are peaceful or disruptive, is patently unnecessary and will have the inevitable effect of chilling First Amendment activity,” she said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.
Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal, where he started on the copy desk, then oversaw digital operations, was the managing editor and reported from the Statehouse. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.