As heavily armed and equipped police confronted protesters this week in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the increased militarization of local police forces is being debated on the streets and perhaps soon in Congress.
Already one congressman is calling to rollback a Department of Defense program that has sent more than $5.1 billion worth of excess war materials to local law enforcement agencies since 1997, including hundreds of weapons sent to southwest Ohio.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., says he plans to introduce legislation when Congress returns in September to reform the Pentagon’s 1033 Program.
“Our Main Streets should be a place for business, families and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson said this week. “Militarizing America’s Main Streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent.”
Johnson wants the program to stop sending armored vehicles and assault weapons to counties and towns and put tougher measures in place to account for those items transferred.
The program is coming under scrutiny following the Ferguson, Missouri, protests that continue days after police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. On Friday, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson identified Officer Darren Wilson as the one who fired on Brown, an unarmed African American. Police also released security camera video of a man they identified as Brown stealing a box of cigars about 15 minutes before the shooting.
The police release of the new allegations Friday again raised the intensisty of protests that had calmed some Thursday after the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over the scene. The mostly African-American protesters confronted heavily armed and predominantly white police officers after Brown was killed a week ago today.
Impact in our area
Area police agencies as small as Perry Twp. in Montgomery County and Sugarcreek Twp. in Greene County received M16 rifles through the program. Campus security at Sinclair Community College took possession of five M16s in 2007 while and Central State University’s police got five M14s through the program in 2008, according to Defense Logistic Agency disposition records administered by the Ohio Department of Public Safety in Columbus.
Huber Heights police have been on the receiving end of 50 M16 rifles, with 41 of those all delivered in March 2013. The records indicate the department has received more than one rifle for every sworn officer.
Nearly 65,000 total items from rifles, to scopes, to night vision goggles to the sheer leader by numbers, chemiluminescent lights, or glow sticks, have been scooped up by Ohio agencies. Greene County is home of two MRAPs, a mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored fighting vehicle. The county and Beavercreek Police each received one earlier this year. New MRAPs run $733,000 but local departments can go online and pick one up free or for just a few thousand dollars.
The Greene County Sheriff’s MRAP hasn’t been pressed into duty, and Major Rick Bowman said he hopes it never is because it’s for use “only in a critical type of incident.”
Had the MRAP been in service last summer, Bowman said it likely would have been taken to Yellow Springs when Paul Schenck got in a shootout with officers, Bowman said. Arriving officers were met by gunfire and had to dive for cover. At one point, 63 officers from 12 agencies were on the scene.
“It’s something that could be put between live fire and citizens and officers. Or we could remove victims or an injured officer when we are taking live fire,” Bowman said. “When you sit here where I do that’s a piece of equipment that can save my officers’ lives.”
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office received 20, .45-caliber pistols in 2007 and got a Humvee through the program last year.
Sheriff Gene Kelly said the department could have used an armored vehicle on New Year’s Day 2011 when deputy Suzanne Hopper was killed in the line of duty after responding to a shots-fired call at Enon Beach campground. The shooter, Michael Ferryman, was later killed by other officers in a gun battle.
“Whenever you have a situation where you have an individual that’s in a situation where they’re barricaded that’s when we can take our armored vehicle and use it for cover. In the situation down where Suzanne was at we had a vehicle from Fairborn where they rammed that trailer that day and that provided cover and we used an armored vehicle to go in and get Suzanne and bring her out,” Kelly said.
He said Clark County officials have not had to deal with an incident similar to Ferguson during his career.
Kelly said the key is establishing a relationship and gaining the trust of the community prior to a major event. He said community policing is essential.
“You have to get out as much information as you can. Misinformation is what causes distrust. Misinformation is what people grab and try and run with and that’s how events start and escalate,” Kelly said.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said equipping departments like the military sends the wrong message to the public.
“They’re turning some police departments into para-military departments,” he said. Plummer said he understands that some departments need the equipment because they are facing budget cuts but he said there should be limits.
The sheriff’s department, he said, has an armored SWAT car, “but it’s not a military tank because we don’t want to be confused with the military.”
“We want to work on community policing and solving problems,” Plummer said.
According to state information, Montgomery County was shipped several rifles in 2006. Plummer said the rifles were either returned or are being used in training but are not used regularly. In June, the department received a light that is being used for the SWAT team but Plummer said the department won’t be requesting other equipment in the future.
But as criminals continue to get more advanced weaponry, it’s important law enforcement officials have the opportunity to even the playing field, he added.
For his department, those equipment purchases are made with seized drug money, he said.
“Our SWAT team is fully equipped,” he said. “We buy what we need with drug money. But they are not used every day on the street.”
Central State University Police Chief Mark Mechan said his department has five M14 rifles in cases there’s an occasion that calls for a tactical rifle, like an active shooter on campus.
The rifles, he said, are not carried in patrol cars.
“You just want to plan for any situation that might happen,” said Mechan, who has been at the school since 2011. “You’ve got to be prepared should anything happen.” The school got the rifles in 2008.
As part of the school’s ongoing preparation for an active shooter situation, officials participated in a tabletop exercise this year, he added. Officers receive weapons training as part of their work including state mandated weapons qualifications.
There are opportunities to get bigger items, like vehicles, through the program, Mechan said.
“There’s a whole assortment of things you can get,” he said. Many of those items would be inappropriate for his department—like boats or Humvees.
“None of that material would be helpful for us,” he said. There’s also additional costs associated with maintenance, he said.
Tactical police teams, or the SWAT concept, developed from the inadequate response to a campus shooter in 1966 at the University of Texas. Sniper Charles Whitman fired from the campus tower, killing 16 and wounding 31.
Staff writer Tiffany Latta and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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