Scenes of heavily armed police in military uniforms and gear in Ferguson, Mo., last week brought the issue of “police militarization” into the national debate.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), in a column for Time magazine, wrote: “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”
Police agencies say obtaining heavy armaments is necessary to counter increasingly heavily armed criminals. One of the main programs that enables local police to receive military gear began in 1997, the same year that a bank robbery in California resulted in a 44-minute firefight between robbers in body armor and automatic rifles pitted against outgunned police officers.
Much of the surplus military gear obtained by local law enforcement agencies comes via the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office. An analysis last Sunday by the Detroit Free Press found that the police department in Dundee, Mich., a town of about 4,000 residents, obtained a mine-resistant ambush vehicle through the Defense Department’s 1033 program. A county in rural west Michigan received five grenade launchers.
A national database of disbursements through the 1033 program compiled by the Free Press showed that no surplus military equipment has come to the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office.
Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie C. Smith said her department has not acquired any military surplus equipment for many years. Before she first assumed the post in 2008, she said, the office acquired a four-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer and military-style utility knives, both of which are still part of the department’s inventory.
Though the RCSO does have assault rifles and bulletproof vests for its officers, she said, they are not military surplus. The department has no SWAT team of its own, she said; for civil emergencies and events that endanger the public, assistance would be requested from the Virginia State Police and sheriff’s offices in surrounding jurisdictions who maintain such special forces (including in Fauquier, Warren and Culpeper counties), Smith said.
Neighboring law enforcement agencies have obtained military gear through the 1033 program, according the Free Press database.
Culpeper County: The sheriff’s office obtained a mine-resistant vehicle last October. It also got 20 pieces of night vision equipment.
Madison County: Five .45 caliber automatic pistols; three 7.62 millimeter rifles.
Fauquier County: No equipment obtained.
Page County: Boots, air compressors — and a golf cart — among other items.