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Police find bargains in Uncle Sam surplus Balto. Co. department stretches its budget with government goods


A hard-to-find item put Al Friedman on the path to becoming the Baltimore County Police Department's unofficial power shopper several years ago.

He needed an armored personnel carrier. He found it -- free -- and the rest is bargain-shopping, budget-saving history. Friedman had stumbled across the ultimate discount store: Uncle Sam's surplus.

"We got in this thing by accident," said Friedman, a corporal in the police support operations division. "We were looking for an armored vehicle. We sat on the phone for three days. One phone call led to another and another. And we found out about this program."

The 1033 Federal Surplus Property Program is used by about half of the state's 100 law enforcement agencies to help stretch their budgets. The rules of the program, renewed every other year by Congress, are simple: Anything police agencies take must be directly applied to law enforcement needs. The cost is simpler: zero.

This year, Baltimore County Police Department acquired goods valued at $98,000. Last year, it was $511,720, according to records kept by Maryland State Police, which coordinates and keeps track of what Maryland law enforcement agencies get. The county has used the program since 1993.

"This program is so important to law enforcement," said Nathan Beam, a retired trooper and a civilian employee of Maryland State Police who keeps the records. "It saves the county taxpayers a lot of money."

It also allows police departments to use military technology against crime. In addition to the armored personnel carrier that Friedman found for the county (he says it has been used in barricade situations in fields and open areas where officers can't find cover), the county acquired several hundred helmets made of Kevlar, the material used to make bulletproof vests.

"This could save a life," Friedman said. The helmets will stop a bullet, he said, and could be used during rioting and by the tactical team.

The program also meets more mundane needs, Friedman said, such as office chairs that need to be replaced because patrol officers' guns rip the arms when they sit down or get up.

County police also have a military-surplus moving truck -- useful for search warrants that call for examining the contents of a house.

"Before, we had to get Hertz or whatever," Friedman said. The county acquired the 18-foot truck last spring, and it has been used more than two dozen times, he said.

Warehouses where the federal surplus is stored are scattered around the country. Friedman goes to the largest one in the eastern regional area in Mechanicsburg.

"There are two warehouses, each the size of a football field," he says. "You just go look. You'd be surprised at what the federal government recycles. Sometimes you go down all pumped up -- and there's nothing there."

But -- as any seasoned shopper knows -- the hunt is part of the fun.

"We kind of make a game of it," Friedman says. "The Police Department budget people send me requests -- chairs, desk, paper shredders, whatever."

He also keeps a running list that grows from 19 years of police experience that lets him identify the needs of patrol officers, detectives and photographers -- sometimes before they have asked him for help.

In the warehouse, Friedman walks up and down the huge rows of military surplus goods, surveying helicopter parts, thousands of boxes of staples, helmets, guns.

"Sometimes, I'll see stuff that I think someone can use," Friedman says. He calls and asks -- "Do we need this?" -- and if the answer is yes, he puts a tag on the item.

The federal surplus also helps the department keep down maintenance costs on big-ticket items such as the department's helicopter and the personnel carrier, Friedman says. Helicopter batteries cost $4,000. Recently, Friedman found a generator that can be used instead of a battery to run the chopper during tuneups and maintenance checks.

That's fewer $4,000 batteries the department has to buy.

Friedman says he has one rule when he goes to the warehouse.

"I only take what we actually need," he says. "You can have just about anything as long as you have a justification for it."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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