ABC/Fusion Investigation: Military Guns Missing From Police Agencies

Weapons may have been lost -- or worse.

August 29, 2014, 7:13 PM
PHOTO: A man is detained after a standoff with police, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.
A man is detained after a standoff with police, Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.
Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

— -- The guns-drawn streets of Ferguson jolted America awake to the militarization of the nation's police.

Local cops, often untrained in military tactics, may be carrying assault rifles used by our Marines and even Special Forces, commanding American boulevards from atop armored personnel carriers -- all using surplus weaponry donated by the Pentagon in a program designed to better equip civilian police against terrorists and heavily armed criminals.

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“These are tools that law enforcement unfortunately needs,” Lt. Mitchell O’Brien with the Huntington Beach, California, Police Department told ABC News. “In North Hollywood, you had law enforcement officers going to B&B guns, looking for weapons so they could fight some criminals that had heavily armed, or were heavily armed with assault weapons.”

Also unfortunate, however, as we found in an ABC News/Fusion investigation, was that some police forces are not keeping track of these high-powered weapons.

For Fusion's full and ongoing investigation, see: Fusion Investigates: How Did America's Police Departments Lose Loads of Military-Issued Weapons?

Huntington Beach, California, was given 23 M-16s and one is missing.

“Bottom line is the gun is not here and we were suspended from the program, haven't received anything since 1999,” O’Brien said.

In fact, it’s a huge nationwide problem.

The Pentagon suspended three entire states -- Alabama, North Carolina and Minnesota -- for failure to comply with the annual inventory requirements.

In addition, 146 individual law enforcement agencies in 36 states have been suspended since 2007.

Seven departments have been kicked out forever and ordered to return every weapon passed on to them by the Pentagon because of repeated issues with these military-style weapons.

Georgia departments have lost four M-16s and seven M14 machine guns, not to mention 13 military issued 45-caliber handguns.

Clayton County, Georgia lost an M-16, and officials understand the concern.

"Any time a weapon like this ends up missing, that has the possibility of ending up in the wrong hands. It is of concern," Capt. Angelo Daniel of the Clayton County Police told ABC News affiliate WSB-TV in Atlanta.

Not all of the missing weapons are simply lost.

The sheriff of Rising Star, Texas, a town of 800 people, one police officer and no murders this decade, was indicted for selling and pawning $4 million-worth of high-value military equipment, including a machine gun.

“It just appears that the Pentagon’s not minding the store,” Steve Ellis, vice president of Tax Payers for Common Sense, told ABC News, "that once the inventory is gone, it’s out of sight, out of mind -- and we can't afford to have weapons of this type walking around the streets.”

“If the government's going to give away billions of dollars in military hardware, they should be sure that they are keeping track of where it’s actually going,” Ellis added. “And it’s shocking to find out that we are seeing M-16s, other automatic weapons that are being lost or simply walking out of the police departments.”

O’Brien in Huntington Beach told ABC News that officials think the weapon they lost was melted down, but they aren’t really sure.

“Probably, [it was] one of those things where we used it for parts and the spare parts probably got discarded at some point -- but again, its inconclusive,” he said. “But we are pretty confident nobody got into our armory and took it.”

In Hyattsville, Maryland, the police department was suspended this past April after an M-16 was stolen from an off-duty officer’s patrol car in July 2010. But the department wasn’t even aware of its suspension until Aug. 27, when ABC News called to inquire.

In a statement to ABC News, the department wrote: “Our agency is currently working with state and federal coordinators of the of the (sic) Military Surplus Program to have the suspension lifted.”

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told ABC News in a statement, “The department takes its responsibilities very seriously when it comes to property accountability.”

“Thousands of controlled property items have been provided to law enforcement agencies (LEAs) through this program and each are inventoried yearly," Kirby added. "States and LEAs that don't properly comply with this rule can and are suspended by our Law Enforcement Support Office. I'd like to note that over 98 percent of the more than 8,000 participating law enforcement agencies remain in good standing within the program. The fact that these LEAs and states were suspended is evidence that DoD [the Department of Defense] is providing oversight and taking action when LEAs are not providing proper accountability of the equipment entrusted to their use.

"[Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel] is participating in the president's review of all federal programs and funding that enable state and local law enforcement to purchase or obtain military-grade equipment," the statement continued. "Within that, the secretary will be reviewing the 1033 program administered by DoD. It would be inappropriate to speculate on the secretary's decisions before the review is complete.

The Pentagon's "1033 program" is described as the ability for the secretary of defense to "transfer" property to state and local agencies, and includes -- in addition to weapons -- transfer of computers, furniture, safety equipment and uniforms.

ABC News' Dana Hughes Contributed to this report.