hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News October 2014


Ready for battle

Flow of military equipment to local police raises questions


Contributing writer



The mine-resistant armored personnel carrier was built to help U.S. troops survive roadside bomb attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, but its new home is among malls and outlet stores here in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
Last fall, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office was among eight local police agencies across New York that received mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, through a Pentagon program that gives surplus military equipment to domestic law enforcement organizations.

The 19-ton vehicle stands 10 feet tall and gets, at best, a few miles per gallon. With its original turret for mounting a machine gun, a feature that has been removed, it was valued at $1 million.
But the vehicle was free to Warren County, and officials of the Sheriff’s Office have said the costs of operating and maintaining it, including storing it in a heated garage, will be paid with funds seized from drug dealers, resulting in no new cost to local taxpayers.

With its shell reinforced to prevent penetration by armor-piercing bombs, the vehicle can withstand fire from high-caliber weapons, and police say it could be used in “worst-case scenarios” involving heavily armed suspects.

Although the vehicle was free, however, its acquisition last year provoked some criticism -- including from county supervisors, some of whom questioned whether the low-crime county really needs something so massive.

And across eastern New York and western New England, some civil libertarians have lately been raising concerns about what they describe as the militarization of the region’s police. In addition to castoff weapons, vehicles and gear from the Pentagon, some police agencies are receiving federal anti-terrorism grants for new military-style equipment.

The issue has been in the national news lately because of the police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting in August of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer. Images of police monitoring the protests from armored vehicles and pointing automatic rifles at protestors provoked outrage around the country and prompted President Obama to call for a review of the programs that provide military gear to police.

At a hearing last month in Washington, a bipartisan group of senators faulted what they said was a lack of oversight by the federal agencies that are funneling military gear even to small-town police forces. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said the practice is “crazy out-of-control.”

Locally, Bill Loeb, a former county supervisor from Glens Falls whose questions about Warren County’s MRAP vehicle set off the first in a series of news stories about the issue last year, said the use of heavy military equipment by police sends the wrong message to the public.

“We have to remember that the founders set up our nation to protect the people from government tyranny,” said Loeb, a Democrat who lost his re-election bid last November.

“Of course we want police to be safe performing their job,” Loeb said. “Yet as citizens, we also have to feel that we can protect ourselves from the government. It’s a delicate balance, and the military hardware tips that balance away from the citizens.”


Fighting drugs, terrorism
Besides Warren County, the military gave MRAP vehicles last year to the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and to six other New York police agencies from the Plattsburgh and Buffalo areas to Long Island. But these outsized vehicles are just one recent and striking example of military equipment being transferred to local police agencies.

Across the nation, police forces of all sizes, urban and rural, have obtained everything from assault rifles to night-vision goggles, grenade launchers, clothing and blankets, armored vehicles, helicopters and airplanes.

Since 1990, the Pentagon has been authorized to give its surplus property, much of it military material, to police departments. The initial justification for this transfer was to aid police in the nation’s war on drugs. When Congress created the so-called 1033 program in 1997, it added the fight against terrorism to the purpose. (The number 1033 refers to a short section in that year’s lengthy defense authorization bill.)

All told, state and local police departments across the nation have obtained more than $4.3 billion in free surplus military property from the Pentagon through the 1033 program. The largess includes more than 500 MRAP vehicles so far, some to departments with fewer than 10 full-time officers. Last year alone, the Pentagon transferred nearly $450 million worth of equipment to domestic police agencies across the nation – and to at least 26 school districts.

But that’s not all. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers grants for police departments around the country to buy new military equipment directly from defense contractors for counterterrorism preparedness. Since its inception in the early 2000s, the program has given out $34 billion.

Then there are the U.S. Department of Justice’s Byrne grants, through which regional narcotics task forces qualify for funding for all aspects of their work, including obtaining equipment. The Byrne program gives police incentives for making arrests, serving warrants and seizing property, activities for which military-type equipment now is frequently used.


Security and secrecy
It’s not always easy to find out exactly what types of military equipment have been obtained by local police agencies.

Massachusetts State Police, for example, refused a written request for a list of equipment obtained by state and local police agencies through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, citing a state law that exempts the disclosure of information related to “security measures” and “emergency preparedness.”

In contrast, the Vermont National Guard, which serves as that state’s liaison for the 1033 program, promptly agreed to ship a compact disc containing the comparable information for Vermont. And a spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Public Safety provided a complete list within a few days of equipment provided to the state’s police agencies through U.S. Department of Homeland Security grants.

A request for comparable information from state-level officials in New York was still pending in late September, but top officials at several county sheriff’s departments in eastern New York freely discussed their equipment acquisitions.

Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, however, did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

In New York, some police officials said the military equipment they’ve acquired would mainly be put it use aiding their fight against illicit drugs.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office, for example, obtained 11 assault rifles last year through the 1033 program. Undersheriff John Winchell said the department expects to step up its drug enforcement efforts as city police in Rutland, Vt., make a concerted effort to curb drug trafficking in that city.

“We’re the ones who will feel the repercussions” of that effort, Winchell said. “We’re trying to present a strong front.”

Assault rifles, such as the AK-47 and M-16, are semiautomatic firearms configured for rapid fire and designed for combat use. Modern armies generally use them as their standard service rifles. These rifles have a mechanism that automatically ejects the spent cartridge and loads the next one, readying it to immediately fire again. Although in semiautomatic mode each pull of the trigger fires only a single shot, these rifles can be switched to a fully automatic mode.

Winchell said his agency got the assault rifles and other military devices, such as night-vision equipment, for the department’s tactical team in response to increasing drug activity. He said police must keep pace with drug-dealing gangs that are becoming more heavily armed in part to fight their own turf wars.

In Columbia County, Sheriff Stephen Bartlett said all of his department’s patrol cars now have assault rifles, although these were not acquired from the military. The department has 50 sworn deputies.

Like other law enforcement officials around the region, Bartlett said the military-style weapons help his officers keep a step ahead of criminals who are increasingly heavily armed.
“The bad guys have gotten this stuff,” he said. “I need to be prepared at all times to protect the citizens.”

This arms race is reflected in the skyrocketing number of citizens seeking pistol permits, he said.
“When I started in 1984, the biggest thing I had to worry about was if someone would take a slug at me in a bar fight,” Bartlett said.

Yet despite the perception expressed by Bartlett and other local law enforcement officials, the violent crime rate in the United States actually has declined precipitously in the last generation. The number of violent crimes per 100,000 people fell from 730 in 1990 to 387 in 2012. Similarly, the U.S. homicide rate dropped by half from 1990 to 2010.


Equipment never to be used?
Warren County’s MRAP vehicle has attracted some criticism locally and was the focus of a national CBS News report earlier this year, so Sheriff Bud York was initially reluctant to be interviewed about it for this story.

“I’m not going to discuss that,” he said. “That’s old news. I’m all talked out.”
But last year, he told The Post-Star of Glens Falls that the vehicle would be used in armed standoffs. It would also act as a deterrent to drug dealers and others contemplating a show of force, he said.

York did say last month that the department has yet to use the vehicle.
“Hopefully we’d never have to use it,” he said.

York’s department previously obtained three other surplus military vehicles, including two armored Humvees, one of which it donated to Washington County this summer.

Law enforcement officials typically stress the great deal they’ve gotten for their constituents by acquiring surplus equipment and weapons that otherwise would be extremely costly to buy – and in the case of MRAP vehicles, would otherwise be scrapped. But critics point out that taxpayers already paid for this high-priced equipment through the military budget.

One-third of the surplus military equipment transferred to police agencies has never been used, and some of it remains unused after police take it over.

If a police agency possesses military-strength weapons, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the weapons were obtained through a federal program.

Bartlett said his predecessor as sheriff bought the department’s assault rifles over a period of time. As a firearms instructor of many years, Bartlett, a 30-year veteran of the department, said he advised his boss, the previous sheriff, to avoid the older military surplus assault rifles then available through the Defense Department’s 1033 program. He said he was unwilling to risk officers’ safety with outdated hand-me-downs that might malfunction.

Instead they turned to drug-forfeiture funds to supplement the regular budget of the county Sheriff’s Office. This alternative funding stream, from cash and property seized in drug raids, gives the department extra cash and plenty of leeway in deciding how to spend it.
“It’s awesome,” Bartlett said. “That’s money I can utilize to purchase equipment and fund programs.”


Free, with hidden costs
Some other area police officials have reservations about the federal giveaways of military armaments and equipment.

Saratoga County Sheriff’s Lt. Daniel Jones said his department is “open and receptive” to the program, but he said that doesn’t mean the equipment on offer is appropriate to the county.
“We don’t feel a need for an armored personnel carrier at this time,” he said.

Last year, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department obtained two assault rifles through the 1033 program. But the department has been cautious about its acquisitions – and not just with military equipment. Jones mentioned that the agency has been considering whether to get Tasers, the stun guns that many other police agencies in the region already have, but he said officials are carefully weighing liability issues and other potential costs.

(Last month, a 43-year-old man died in front of his Ballston Spa home after police repeatedly shocked him with Tasers in an attempt to subdue and arrest him. Although Saratoga County deputies were present at the scene, they did not have or use the stun guns, which were in the hands of state and village police.)

In Rutland County, Sheriff Stephen Benard said the surplus military equipment available from the federal government may be free, but that doesn’t mean it’s up to date or appropriate for his department.

“A lot of the time, it costs more to maintain,” Benard said.
Although his department owns a couple of assault rifles that the previous sheriff acquired through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, Benard said the weapons are “for ceremonial use” and are not issued to officers for use in the field.

Benard serves as a member of a committee that reviews other agencies’ grant applications and said he thinks too many law enforcement organizations are asking for expensive equipment just because it’s available and they don’t have to pay for it.

“You can buy a portable radio for $1,500 that does everything law enforcement needs,” Benard said. But he added that some agencies are procuring $5,200 models “because they can.”
Benard has pursued Homeland Security grants to obtain license plate readers for his department, however.

As in Warren County, Albany County’s mine-resistant vehicle has not been in high demand. Although it has been used in training exercises, it so far has been deployed just once in an actual emergency situation, which the Times Union newspaper described as an armed standoff with a man who was upset about to losing his farmhouse in a bitter divorce and had threatened to shoot police and firefighters if they tried to stop him from burning it down.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple also got three Humvees and 10 M-16 assault rifles from the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Like the mine-resistant vehicle, these items were earmarked for use by the department’s SWAT team and for search-and-rescue efforts.

The Humvees did help the department to rescue people trapped by flooding from Hurricane Irene. But because of its weight and size, Sheriff’s Investigator Ron Messen said, the mine-resistant vehicle can’t travel to some parts of the county. Such vehicles also are not stable on uneven ground, making them unsuitable for many rescue situations.


Armored vehicle, local product
For police agencies that prefer a more diminutive armored personnel carrier, there is a local source for new vehicles in the Berkshires, where Lenco Armored Vehicles of Pittsfield makes the popular armor-plated BearCat. The eight-ton truck is less than half the weight of the MRAP vehicles being given out by the Pentagon. The BearCat features a blast-resistant floor and 3-inch-thick window glass that would not be pierced even by a 50-caliber bullet.

Early last year, a Boston Globe profile detailed how the controversial firm helps law enforcement agencies to write grant applications for Department of Homeland Security funds to buy the company’s $250,000 BearCats and larger $400,000 vehicles. Since the department started its Urban Areas Security Initiative in 2003, the Globe reported, the program has given out tens of millions of dollars in grants to help law enforcement agencies around the country buy Lenco vehicles.

Lenny Light bought the company, then known for its armored bank trucks, from his parents in 1992. When he started manufacturing heavier duty vehicles, he attracted foreign governments as his first clients. Just before the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, Lenco released the BEAR, which stands for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response. After the school massacre, orders started coming in, and business picked up with the advent of federal counterterrorism grants after Sept. 11, 2001.

Police testimonials on the company’s Web site praise Lenco for saving lives, but others are skeptical about the need for police agencies to have armored vehicles, especially in small towns and rural areas that are unlikely targets for terrorism.

In December 2012, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., issued a report on the grant program that has funded so many purchases of Lenco armored trucks, criticizing many of these grants for BearCats as “boondoggles.”

But just a few months after the reports by Coburn and the Globe, Lenco’s chief executive claimed vindication when at least nine BearCats were deployed in the search for Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Mass. (It was a local homeowner, however, who actually led police to Tsarnaev.)

Light has also pointed out that police in Connecticut used a BearCat to gain quick access to the scene of the Newtown school shooting in 2012.

Closer to home, Bartlett told of a case in Columbia County in which a man with a high-powered rifle surrendered after many hours of negotiation. He said the state police arrived in a couple BearCats hours into the incident.

“We were lucky,” Bartlett said, adding that he would prefer that his department had its own armored vehicle so it wouldn’t have to wait in the future.


To protect and serve?
Others, though, say using the tools of war inevitably feeds the impression that police are at war with the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting.

Alice Green, a civil rights activist who founded the Albany-based Center for Law Justice 30 years ago, said the use of armored vehicles and other military equipment runs counter to the philosophy of community policing, which has been credited with dramatically reducing crime rates in some major urban areas over the past two decades.

“What in the world do we need that for?” Green said of the military equipment.
Green said that under the philosophy of community policing, law enforcement professionals must build relationships with people in a community. The local police department and the community form an equal partnership to identify problems and solutions, and the police act as part of the community, she said.

One of the jobs of the police is to “make sure problems don’t become escalated,” Green said.
“Introducing this equipment really says they don’t have these skills or don’t need them,” she added. “It’s a really negative message. When you introduce this type of equipment, it interferes with this relationship. People view it as more of an occupying force. … And if community people don’t trust police when it comes time to cooperate to solve a crime, they’re not going to talk to them.”

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, also said the use of military equipment by police sends the wrong message.

“Police should not be treating the public as the enemy,” Gilbert said. “That can happen when police are equipped as soldiers.”


Special forces, routine tasks
Military-style weapons and tactics are most often used by local police agencies’ SWAT teams.
In Columbia County, for example, SWAT team members wear ballistic helmets as well as bulletproof vests that are heavier and more protective than the body armor worn by the county’s other sheriff’s deputies.

The increasing use of police SWAT teams is raising concern among some who say the special teams (the acronym stands for Special Weapons and Tactics) were originally supposed to be reserved for uniquely dangerous situations but now are often used in more routine operations such as apprehending drug suspects and searching homes.

Earlier this year, the ACLU issued a report that analyzed SWAT team activity in 25 states. The report, “War Come Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” found that nearly 80 percent of tactical team deployments were to execute search warrants, mainly in drug cases – and disproportionately in minority communities.

The report points out that SWAT teams, by forcibly entering people’s homes ready for battle, frequently encounter family members and visitors of all ages who are not suspects, raising the risk of bodily harm. In some cases, innocent bystanders have been killed or injured in such raids.
The ACLU report recommends that SWAT deployments “be limited to the kinds of scenarios for which these aggressive measures were originally intended: barricade, hostage and active shooter situations.”

Interviews with county sheriff’s officers in the region suggest that their tactical teams are commonly deployed for drug searches and arrests in some area counties, rather than being reserved for the far more rare incidents involving active shooters or hostage takers. But MRAP vehicles aren’t being used to carry out search or arrest warrants.

Jim Acker, a criminal justice professor at the University at Albany, said he understands the impulse of law enforcement officials to prepare for “extremely rare worst-case scenarios.”
Bu he said military equipment and tactics need to be reserved for those rare situations where they’re appropriate.

In more routine arrests, “if they’re dressed up in flak jackets and riding Sherman tanks, in all likelihood the costs will outweigh the benefit,” Acker said.

He suggested that when local police agencies encounter situations that demand military-type tactics, they should turn to higher-level organizations with backup capacities, such as state police.

That’s already the approach in Rutland County, where Benard said it makes sense to turn to the state police SWAT team, rather than to organize his own, “for an event that might happen once every four or five years.”

Most of his counterparts in Vermont take the same approach. With more than 300 officers, the state police already possess the training and equipment and can be mobilized as needed, Benard said.

“It would probably cost me $25,000 just to outfit” a SWAT team, he said. Then there’s training and certification. His department only has 19 full-time officers.


A lack of oversight?
The fallout from the Ferguson protests has prompted a new round of questions locally about the transfer of military gear and weaponry to police.

“Everyone was surprised at the images coming out of Ferguson this summer,” said Gilbert, of the Vermont ACLU. “It looked like an army trying to occupy a city. Even the president seemed

surprised at what was going on. That’s why he’s ordered a review of the military surplus program. And certainly here in Vermont, no one – except some military and police officials – had any idea how much surplus military equipment had come into the state.”

In Vermont at least, the state provides no oversight of how local police agencies use equipment obtained through Homeland Security grants.

“We don’t collect data from them,” said Stephanie Brackin-Dasaro of the state Department of Public Safety. “We don’t monitor them. We don’t police agencies, and we don’t control or in any way manage them.”

There is apparently little oversight at the local level as well.
Two New York county sheriffs interviewed for this story said that they did not find it necessary to consult county legislatures or boards of supervisors before acquiring military-style weaponry and equipment. That’s because the acquisitions posed little or no cost to local taxpayers.

In Warren County, supervisors have not attempted to craft a policy or guidelines to govern the use of the Sheriff’s Department’s new mine-resistant vehicle.

But in Vermont, where the state police obtained a mine-resistant vehicle earlier this year, the vehicle will not be put into operation until a use policy has been developed.