The Huntington Beach Police Department made national headlines last year when they responded to a riot that broke out after a surfing competition in the Southern California beach town. Images of young men in board shorts kicking portable bathrooms to the ground and police officers dressed in SWAT gear circulated across the country in newspapers and on cable news networks.
Two months later, the same police department was involved in a different story that didn’t get any media coverage. In April 2013, the Huntington Beach Police Department was suspended from the Pentagon’s 1033 equipment-sharing program after they lost track of an M16 semi-automatic rifle. And they weren't the only ones.
An ongoing Fusion investigation has revealed that nine California police agencies were suspended from the Pentagon's controversial program because they could not account for all their military-issued weapons. At least 13 assault rifles have gone missing from various police departments in the “golden state” — and so far none of those weapons have been recovered.
Since the 1033 program started in 1990, more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide have acquired Pentagon equipment, ranging from assault rifles to armored vehicles. The first installment of Fusion's investigation revealed that 184 agencies across the country have been suspended from the program for mismanaging the donated equipment.
California has 444 police agencies that are certified and eligible to request equipment from the Pentagon, according to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Of those, only 282 have equipment on loan, nine of which been suspended, ranging from small-town Sheriff's offices to larger police departments.
Siskiyou County, one of the most northernmost counties in California, has a population of just under 44,000 — averaging seven people per square mile — according to the latest Census data.
Despite its rural location and sparse population, the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department felt the need to beef up its arsenal. It received 32 assault rifles, one grenade launcher and a mine-resistant vehicle through the Pentagon program. But Siskiyou County was suspended from the program on Jan. 31, 2013 after it failed to locate one of its M14 assault rifles on loan.
Sutter County, just north of the California's state capitol has a population of 95,000 residents and describes itself on its country website as place with a low crime rate, "seismic stability," and "world class outdoor hunting and fishing activities."
It's also a place with tendency to lose assault rifles. The Sutter County Sheriff Department was suspended from the Pentagon's 1033 program after losing two M15s and an M14.
And just miles away from the Capitol building in Sacramento and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services is the local California Highway Patrol office.
Just miles away, the California Highway Patrol’s Sacramento office, located in the Capitol building, was also suspended from the program after it was unable to account for an M16 automatic rifle, according to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
In many cases, police departments suspended from the Pentagon program first realized they were missing weapons during internal audits. But, disturbingly, subsequent investigations don't always turn up the missing weapons, as was the case in the Huntington Beach Police Department.
“An investigation was inconclusive,” Lieutenant Mitchell O'Brien of the Huntington Beach Police Department told Fusion of his office's investigation into the missing assault rifle.
The Pentagon says the situation is not cause for alarm. The suspensions are an indication that the program is working, not that's busted.
“The fact that these law enforcement agencies and states were suspended is evidence that Department of Defense is providing oversight and taking action when [agencies] are not providing proper accountability of the equipment entrusted to their use,” said Department of Defense spokesperson Mark Wright. “Over 98 percent of the more than 8,000 participating law enforcement agencies remain in good standing within the program.”
The Huntington Beach Police Department currently has 22 M16-A1 assault rifles on loan from the Pentagon, more than a year and a half after their suspension. But the department recently passed an audit and federal inspection that could put them on track to rejoin the 1033 program next year.