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Ferguson’s military equipment not used by local law officers
Thursday, August 21, 2014
By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer
Military equipment used by police in Ferguson, Missouri, has drawn controversy but similar equipment isn’t likely to be seen in Martinsville and Henry County.
According to The Associated Press reports, since the start last week of nightly clashes between police and protesters in the St. Louis suburb where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot, police have used a variety of pieces of military equipment.
These include Long-Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), which blast bursts of powerful sound designed to disperse crowds; Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), which are heavily armored trucks capable of withstanding detonations from land mines or improvised explosive devices; heavy body armor; and rifles based on the military M4 carbine.
According to online sources, Ferguson police received much of this equipment through the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, which has supplied police departments nationwide with more than $4.3 billion in military gear since 1997.
The equipment has been part of the police response to protests sparked by the shooting of Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer.
In the days following the initial clashes, some have argued that confronting protesters with heavy military equipment served only to escalate the situation, while others have argued that the police had not received the corresponding military training to properly use the equipment.
According to Martinsville Police Chief Sean Dunn and Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry, neither of their departments possess similar military-grade equipment.
Although the Martinsville Police Department has received demilitarized equipment, Dunn said, it mostly has received items such as uniforms, waterproof jackets, SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) helmets, binoculars and office equipment.
The office also has a Chevrolet Step Van it uses as a SWAT van and two M-14 rifles, although Dunn said the rifles are used only ceremonially by the honor guard and not for patrol or tactical situations.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, Dunn said, the department received some additional personal protective equipment from the federal government, such as gas masks and Tyvek suits. These items generally are used when the police department encounters potentially harmful chemicals, such as during a methamphetamine bust.
“It’s come in handy with more of a local issue rather than a terrorist issue,” he said.
The department does have police-issue SWAT equipment, Dunn said, such as tear gas, rifles, flashbangs and lightweight shields, but it does not possess heavier military equipment, such as riot padding or rubber bullets.
In October, Perry said, the county sheriff’s office will take possession of a new armored vehicle. Although the office had the opportunity to get a military armored vehicle, he said, the decision was made to instead get a smaller vehicle specifically designed for police use.
Military surplus equipment is free to the department, Perry said, “but it’s a lot bigger and a lot more cumbersome to deal with. This (police armored vehicle) is more mobile, and it protects the officers.”
If police officers are entering a dangerous situation, Perry said, they need some protection. While the office does not necessarily need a vehicle capable of withstanding an explosion, such as an MRAP, it does need something that can withstand rifle fire, and the new armored vehicle fits the bill.
Many agencies nationwide have received free military equipment, Perry said, but Henry County was fortunate to have enough asset forfeiture funds to get a piece of equipment more suited to the needs of the sheriff’s office.
Asset forfeiture funds come from money — often drug related — that is seized by the sheriff’s office.
“The drug dealers have paid for our new armored vehicle that’s coming,” Perry said.
The next items on the agenda to be purchased with asset forfeiture funds, he said, are body cameras equipped with infrared lights, similar to the cameras worn by city police officers.
Regarding the clashes in Ferguson, Perry said that he hopes the situation can come to a peaceful resolution and that everyone will “make sure justice is not overlooked.”
“We’re certainly working hard with the community to have positive community relations and find that right balance with our policing,” Dunn said. “(Recent community/law enforcement block party) National Night Out was a good indicator, I think, of the level of support that we have in the community.”