A Bullet for Barney: The DOD and Small Town Police Forces

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The Andy Griffith Show aired on CBS from 1960 to 1968. The comedy centered on a sheriff and his deputy, “Barney Fife,” in a small, fictional town in North Carolina. A continuing theme of the show, and the source of much of the comedy, was Deputy Fife’s gun and bullet. In an attempt to protect both public safety and the Deputy himself, the sheriff gave him only one bullet which he had to carry in his shirt pocket. Barney’s attempt to get that bullet into his gun was the cause of many comedic moments in the show. But Barney’s bullet may not be so funny anymore. Today Deputy Barney can get a lot more than a bullet to maintain order in small town America.

In the 1980s Congress authorized what is called the “1033 Program” which enables the transfer of surplus military goods from the Department of Defense to local police agencies. 13,000 police agencies participate in the program and in 2012 $546 million of defense surplus was transferred to local police departments.

The equipment delivered to small towns across the country includes high-powered weapons and military assault vehicles. The list of available items includes “aircraft, boats, Humvees, body armor, weapon scopes, infrared imaging systems and night-vision goggles,” and some less lethal items like “bookcases, hedge trimmers, telescopes, brassieres, golf carts, coffee makers and television sets.” The 1033 program has resulted in some amusing and alarming acquisitions by small-town American police.

For example, tiny Morven, Georgia, a town best known for its annual peach festival and a locally notorious speed trap, has accumulated more than $4 million of defense department largesse. The Morven police department has acquired three boats, scuba gear, rescue rafts and dozens of life preservers. A quick look at the geological survey for Morven shows that the most perilous body of water in the town is a creek with a depth of about 6 inches. Just in case of a flooding threat from the raging creek, the police department has also received 355 sandbags. The town has also received a shipment of bayonets, no doubt useful if the peach festival turns rowdy. Presumably in an attempt to extend emergency hospitality in the event the peach festival is overrun with visitors, the police department acquired 20 blankets, 20 fitted bed sheets, 50 flat bed sheets and 10 two-man combat tents. Additionally, in an effort to keep the police force fit for duty the department was given a leg press, two treadmills and 20 pairs of red gym shorts.

In order to properly prepare for a disaster in the 750 person community, the three person police force was also able to obtain a decontamination machine originally worth $200,000. Unfortunately the decontamination machine is missing several parts and would cost about $100,000 to repair.

Regrettably, Morven’s requests for equipment have not always been successful. The department requested a handheld laser range finder for a gun and instead got a $28,000 range finder from the nose of an A-10 Warthog tank-busting jet aircraft.

Needless to say Morven is not the only town benefiting from the DOD’s generosity. Rising Star, Texas, a town with one police officer, has acquired $3.2 million worth of equipment including nine televisions, 12 pairs of binoculars, 11 computers, three deep-fat fryers, two meat slicers, 22 large space heaters, a pool table, 25 sleeping bags and playground equipment.

The Oxford, Alabama, police force has received more than $10.4 million in equipment including a $1.5 million infrared surveillance apparatus for a helicopter. The problem, of course is, that the Oxford police department doesn’t have a helicopter.

And finally, as with all such government programs, there have been problems of abuse. The Bureau, IL, sheriff began lending M-14 rifles to his friends who were not in law enforcement. A North Carolina department was caught selling M-14 and M-16 assault rifles on E-Bay. And the Pinal County, Arizona, sheriff’s department tried to auction their equipment off.

So, in 21st Century America Barney can get his bullet, along with assault rifles, high tech surveillance equipment and deep-fat fryers. We’ve come a long way from The Andy Griffith Show.

Gary W. Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

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