University police sit on military-grade guns

A federal program lets college police, often strapped for cash, get surplus military supplies.

Taylor Nachtigal

Many university police departments across the country, including the University of Minnesota Police Department, have access to heavy-duty hardware like military-grade rifles through a federal surplus program.

UMPD received two M-14s and six M-16s in 2006 through the 1033 program, a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows some police departments to receive military surplus from the federal government. While the University department’s weapons have never been used in active duty, officers keep them in easy reach in the case of an active-shooter situation, Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said.

Items schools can acquire from the 1033 program range from small items like gauze bandages and socket wrenches to semi-automatic weaponry.

Officers use the M-16s in training instead of the department’s AR-15s — a similar rifle commonly used in law enforcement — to reduce wear and tear on the AR-15s, he said.

The AR-15s are kept on hand for situations like burglaries or robberies in which there’s an immediate threat because they are more accurate than a handgun, Miner said.

He said working in high-density areas, like a campus environment, requires special care when selecting which weapons to use.

“We want to make sure we’re being as accurate as possible because we’re in a very populated environment,” Miner said.

Three of the M-16s are reserved for what UMPD call an “active shooter” situation and are easily accessible to daytime investigators, University police Chief Greg Hestness said.

“We have three locked in a cabinet near the investigator’s office in the event there was an active shooter on campus,” Hestness said, “but we have never used them, fortunately.”

Likewise, he said the M-14s still sit unused in their original boxes.

The University received the weapons through the program for free, Miner said, adding that the program was an opportunity to save the University a lot of money on weapons that can cost up to $1,000 each.

The Iowa State University Police Division also received M-16s through the program and said the federal program is helpful for police departments that work on tight budgets, said Darin Van Ryswyk, the Iowa State University Police Division’s investigations captain.

“It gives you more options with low budgets, and it’s really useful,” Ryswyk said. “For us, it was an opportunity to save $5,000 to $6,000.”

He also noted that the program provides a large range of materials, from office supplies to armored trucks, which also aids departments.

Iowa uses its equipment for reasons similar to UMPD and has only used them for training purposes so far, Van Ryswyk said.

Each police department that participates in the program is required under federal regulations to send pictures of the weapons and updates to the Department of Defense between two and four times per year, Van Ryswyk said.

Currently, the University has no plans to acquire any other items from the program, Miner said. While some schools took dozens of guns from the program, UMPD wanted to keep its request within reason.

“They were trying to disperse surplus weapons [in 2006] and wanted us to take more than we did,” Hestness said. “We limited to a fairly small number.”