A longtime federal program that has transferred military-surplus weapons and battle gear to police departments is under scrutiny after police in Ferguson, Mo., rolled into streets outfitted like soldiers.
That same program has moved more than 300 M-1s into Hampton Roads police departments and sheriffs’ offices in the past decade, along with body armor, combat gear and military vehicles.
“We`ve got people with tanks. And people with grenade launchers,” said Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “I have been racking my brain to figure out how a law enforcement person in Bath County, or Rockingham or New Kent is going to use a grenade launcher.”
On Monday, President Obama said the program deserves renewed scrutiny. It would be wrong, he said, to blur the lines between the police and the military. But a Pentagon spokesman defended the program.
“We’re not militarizing law enforcement, we are not pushing things out,” said RADM John Kirby.” It’s a process by which this equipment is available, should they deem that they need it and they want it. I won’t speak for law enforcement but my hunch is that many of these agencies out there will tell you that some of this equipment saves lives and protects citizens.”
A Virginia State Police database of the transfers shows Hampton Roads law enforcement has received everything from machine guns to sunglasses, even a motorized glider. The glider, like a lot of the transfers, turned out to be of limited usefulness and it was sent to another agency. Two agencies have requested armored trucks – “MRAPs” – designed to withstand roadside bomb blasts. Those requests are listed as “pending.”
The program transfers the equipment at no charge, but it is then up to the new owners to pay for maintenance, storage and other costs.
The database also shows some law-enforcement agencies have made use of the program, even though they don’t do much traditional policing. Records show the Chesapeake Sheriff’s Department, for example, has acquired 19 M-16 machine guns, even though the deputies’ primary responsibilities are running the jail and maintaining court security. Records show the Portsmouth sheriff has received a military boat and a golf cart. Some of the records show odd transfers like three kayaks to the Franklin Police Department.
The most troublesome acquisitions, according the to ACLU, are weapons meant for the battlefield.
“You can’t just say to people, we have a bunch of free stuff available on the Internet. Have at it,” Gastanaga said. “And you get all this free stuff because it is there. Not because you need it. Not because you know how to use it. Not because you are planning to train people how to use it.”
Police say acquiring this equipment saves taxpayers money and keeps their communities safe. But the ACLU says there should be more civilian oversight of these requests. The worry, according to the ACLU, is if you equip your police for war, they might act like they are at war. The group says that’s on full display in Ferguson.