Police Militarization Financially Harmful to Locals

While it is offered “for free,” police militarization equipment can be costly.

newark police helicopter

While the worries about police militarization have become entangled in the whole Ferguson controversy, the concerns have been raised long before that issue. One of the reasons to be concerned is that some of the “free” stuff really isn’t free at all, when you think of the entailed expenses. Depending on what kind of military technology a location receives, taxpayers in a local area may find their government budget getting hijacked by unplanned obligations that come with the “free” gift.

I’m not sure a Viet Nam helicopter qualifies as the worst form of “militarization,” but what happened in Newark is, if nothing more, at least a clear indication of the financial liabilities that can be incurred. Thus, the headline from NJ.com: “How a free Army helicopter cost Newark police more than $2M.”

The 42-year-old Vietnam-era OH-58A Bell Kiowa helicopter, a U.S. Army hand-me-down, came at a very good price. It was free.

So the Newark Police Department took two—one to operate and the other for spare parts.

And that’s when the bills started to fly.

Newark’s police helicopter looks new and is loaded with state-of-the-art equipment that can keep an eye on the crime-ridden streets below. But an examination of public records shows the city, beset by budget problems that have forced layoffs and cutbacks in police staffing, has spent more than $2 million to refurbish, maintain and operate the aging aircraft, which does not fly all that often.

A spokesman for the police would not respond to questions about the helicopter or its total cost to the city. However, documents obtained by NJ Advance Media under a series of public records requests show maintenance contracts alone approved by the Newark City Council in the past five years alone have totaled $1.13 million, including a $81,000 emergency appropriation.

At the same time, flight logs provided by Newark show that the helicopter, which is based at a hanger at a Kearny heliport, is frequently on the ground. Taking to the air typically on Friday and Saturday nights, it usually flies patrols for about four hours a night. It was also deployed for newly elected Mayor Ras Baraka’s inauguration in July.

The story goes on to document other expenses and problems. The bottom line is that the Federal Government is getting local governments to make decisions that have implications that neither they, nor the taxpayers, have an opportunity to think through and decide upon. Perhaps equipping, driving and maintaining a Bearcat is not as expensive as doing so for a helicopter, but I suspect that all such vehicles are more costly to the taxpayers than they expect.

The entire decision-making process is skewed. Once the equipment is owned by the local government, they will naturally tend to want to keep using it even though there may be other needs that they should be budgeting for.

If a local government raised its own money and decided it needed aerial surveillance, it would be more likely to carefully consider all the ramifications of such a move—and what financial commitments it involved.

Even in the case of surplus equipment, transfers from the Federal government to the local government undermine the principles of Federalism. Local self-government becomes more difficult because of “free stuff” coming from the national government.