PHOENIX – Among Arizona agencies that received military surplus equipment under a Department of Defense program, a state department responsible for catching poachers and issuing boating citations received equipment worth more than that acquired by some the largest law enforcement offices.
A review of state-level data for the so-called 1033 program showed the Arizona Game and Fish Department received more than $2.4 million worth of equipment, including two small airplanes, scores of gunsights, reconnaissance cameras and sleeping bags.
That amount exceeded the dollar value of gear that went to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, Pima County Sheriff’s Department and Mesa Police Department.
Game and Fish has roughly 120 sworn law enforcement officers, according to a spokesman. In comparison, the Mesa Police Department has around 780.
Game and Fish’s total also exceeded that of any comparable department in 31 states, including California, Texas and Florida, for which the open-government group MuckRock has obtained data on 1033 acquisitions. An additional three game and fish departments told MuckRock they received equipment but didn’t list its worth.
Game and Fish acquired nearly 3,800 items, including 208 gun sights and two Cessnas. The planes, valued at $880,000 each, made up a large share of total worth of the equipment the agency received.
Tom Cadden, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said the gun sights are used to upgrade those on the agency’s standard rifles and the planes are used to patrol for poachers.
“We do some night flying to make sure people aren’t spotlighting. Also, they’re up there if there’s anyone in need of assistance,” Cadden said.
Cadden said Game and Fish acquired the planes, which are 40 years old, from Customs and Border Protection. One of the planes is flyable, and the other is used for parts to keep the first operational, he said.
Arizona Game and Fish also received seven camera systems worth a total of $42,600. Cadden said those are used to detect poaching and violations of wildlife laws.
The rest is primarily field gear, such as sleeping bags, tool kits, jackets and lights.
The Department of Defense Excess Property Program was established in the 1990s so local law enforcement agencies could combat drug trafficking and terrorism and keep officers safe.
Cadden said Game and Fish does have a law enforcement mission and uses the 1033 equipment for that purpose.
Cadden also said Game and Fish has to provide a statement justifying why it needs the equipment, which is then approved by a state 1033 coordinator. He said he was unable to provide a copy of that statement because the information was entered online, and the state’s program coordinator told Cronkite News that information goes into a Department of Defense mainframe computer.
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s annual report for 2012-2013, agency officers issued 834 citations for wildlife violations, put in 8,156 hours in boating enforcement and were responsible for 20 percent of all operating-under-the-influence boating citations.
Cadden noted that the two planes were big-ticket items that bumped up the total worth of the agency’s equipment.
“I think each agency needs to assess its own needs,” he added.
Cadden noted that because Game and Fish doesn’t receive any general fund money from tax dollars, relying instead on licenses and other fees, the 1033 program helps the department save money.
“This really does help us save a lot of money that otherwise would have come from sportsmen’s dollars,” he said.
Pete Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied the 1033 program, said different law enforcement agencies tend to justify their need for 1033 equipment by imagined scenarios.
“Even when you think of something as seemingly non-risk-oriented as busting people on a lake for driving a boat intoxicated, we can still imagine all types of scenarios, even in the fish and game community, that could potentially need an armored personnel carrier, for example,” he said.
While some similar agencies received firearms under the 1033 program, Kraska noted that the Arizona Game and Fish Department didn’t.
“If all that was happening is they were getting desks and microwave ovens and some clothes and some blankets and emergency supplies that they normally would have to buy in their budgets, but they went ahead and got it for free from the Department of Defense, I don’t think anybody would have a problem with it whatsoever,” he said.