An inability to keep track of surplus military rifles forced the 2013 retirement of a Tennessee Highway Patrol captain and more recently caused another state agency to be temporarily suspended from the program that provided them.
A gun stolen from a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency truck prompted a mandatory suspension of the agency from the federal program. That happened in June, and the agency reported the theft immediately. TWRA officials expect to be reinstated to the program, which provides guns it uses to control wild hogs.
The THP captain retired more than a year ago, after two M-14 rifles went missing, according to Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the highway patrol. A lieutenant also was suspended and transferred, she said, and the missing guns remain under investigation.
Both agencies were suspended from the federal program that provides military surplus gear to law enforcement agencies. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the program — which has given $121 million in gear to Tennessee — in the aftermath of clashes between police and demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo., last month.
State officials said four agencies have been suspended from the program. The Columbia Police Department and the Claiborne County Sheriff's Department are the other two.
"Some of (the missing weapons) were uncovered in audits," said David Roberson, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of General Services. "Exactly why (the rifle) missing is subject to investigation."
Under the surplus program, local agencies cover just the cost of shipping or transportation and agree to spot checks and inventory reviews. They're required to report missing, stolen or damaged items.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol reported two missing M-14 rifles in the spring of 2013. When they couldn't be found, the "accounting errors" led to the forced retirement of a Special Operations captain and the suspension and transfer of a lieutenant.
Qualls said THP Col. Tracy Trott recently decided to end that agency's participation in the program altogether because of internal accounting hassles and a decreased need for the equipment. The THP has received more than $3 million in equipment, state data show.
"They may not be acquiring any more equipment. They will have to maintain those on the inventory," Roberson said.
TWRA, meanwhile, will be reinstated, Roberson said.
A game warden had an M-16 rifle stolen out of his state-owned truck near Tullahoma. Police later made an arrest and located the rifle, Roberson said.
"It was reported immediately, and part of protocol is that you're automatically suspended," said Darren Rider, TWRA colonel of boating and law enforcement.
TWRA received 235 M-16 rifles last year — one for each commissioned officer — which were a major upgrade from the pistols and shotguns they carried before, Rider said.
"There was no other funding source to obtain a rifle, so this program certainly made that come to fruition," Rider said. "It gave us that ability to be better enforcement officers."
Describing three layers of paper accounting for each rifle, plus a photographic inventory and periodic audits, Rider said he must keep track of the weapons.
"It's not a loosely run, renegade program. It's very rigorous to maintain the capability to be a participant," he said.
Rider said the rifles have never been fired in "active shooter" situations.
They are used as part of the state's war on wild hogs. In 2011, TWRA banned general hunting of the hogs but created a program to allow bagging of the nuisance beasts, which cause an estimated $1.5 billion annually in damage to Tennessee forests and farmland.
TWRA appears to have gotten its rifles just in time. Later in 2013, the national Law Enforcement Support Office, which oversees the surplus program, halted the giving of all firearms to local agencies.
The Associated Press, which found instances of agencies selling surplus for profit and other problems, reported the firearms suspension could be lifted in October.
The federal office that oversees the program has added staff, but the AP found that reviews of state inventories often didn't keep pace with requirements.
Columbia police could not be reached for comment.
State officials said four of 232 participating departments are suspended and under investigation:
• the Tennessee Highway Patrol, which had two unaccounted for M-14 rifles.
• the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which had an M-16 stolen from a game warden, and later recovered.
• the Columbia Police Department, missing one of its 28 M-14s.
• the Claiborne County Sheriff's Department, missing an M-14.