Mich. officials push back as feds recall military gear
Washington — December is traditionally the season of giving. But this month, the federal government is taking back surplus military equipment it donated to local police — even as some Michigan authorities say the gear is needed.
The surrender comes after the Obama administration determined the equipment to be overly militaristic and incompatible with civil law enforcement in the wake of the paramilitary response to riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
The recall has frustrated police and sheriffs in Michigan, where the items to be returned include 13 tracked armored vehicles, eight grenade launchers and 45 bayonets from a total 15 counties, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.
Macomb and Oakland counties, whose sheriff departments both lost their armored vehicles, last week learned they’d been tentatively approved for replacements — mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, which move on wheels rather than tracks.
Other agencies might have to go without an armored vehicle at a time when local law enforcement say it’s a vital tool for officers on the front lines of domestic terrorist attacks. They point out that officers responding to the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, used tactical equipment and armored vehicles this month to stop a pair of terrorist attackers from causing further damage.
“Unfortunately, it’s a reaction to a few celebrated incidents where their use might have been questionable,” said Wayne County Benny N. Napoleon, whose department turned in its tracked armored vehicle Dec. 7.
“A blanket recall for every one of those vehicles when they’ve overwhelmingly been used in a proper manner was just not wise.”
The recall flows from an executive order from President Barack Obama banning some equipment from the program and requiring more training and oversight for others.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like (police are) an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said in May, announcing the reforms from Camden, New Jersey.
U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, this month introduced a resolution disapproving of the order, arguing that tracked armored vehicles are used responsibly in rescue and response situations, only emerging when “absolutely necessary.”
“Clearly, the president thought that there was an image problem,” Trott said. “On the flip side of that, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety among my constituents, so to say that we’re not going to use these vehicles to protect and enable our local authorities to fight terror potentially is kinda putting our head in the sand.”
The federal government has donated surplus military items to local law enforcement for decades. Currently known as the 1033 program — after section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act — it sends surplus gear to local agencies at little to no cost. The equipment ranges from armored vehicles and assault weapons to uniforms and boots, and to office shelves and computers.
Since 1995, the Pentagon has transferred more than $40.4 million (in original acquisition costs) worth of gear to law-enforcement agencies in Michigan, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.
A federal working group, convened after the unrest in Ferguson, recommended police be prohibited from using federal funds or programs to acquire tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and large-caliber weapons or ammunition.
The group cited the “substantial risk” of misusing or overusing the gear, with the potential to “significantly undermine community trust” and encourage tactics and behaviors “inconsistent with the premise of civilian law enforcement.”
John DeCarlo, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said while the 1033 program has contributed to the militarization of police, it isn’t the only factor.
DeCarlo says the trend is a by-product of the homeland security era: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, local law enforcement agencies moved away from community policing toward a more militarized mindset.
“Why did the federal government decide to give all this stuff to local police officers? Because they wanted them as partners in the effort to combat terrorism,” DeCarlo said.
“If the government didn’t want any militarization of police, they would have banned the program,” he added. Instead, Obama attempted to satisfy critics, while assuring police the program wasn’t going away.
But Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard says the executive order arose from the vantage of “perception, rather than reality.” As vice president for government affairs of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, he lobbied the White House not to implement its reforms to the 1033 program.
“Very little of what happens in this country today is related to what happened in Ferguson,” Bouchard said. “You can’t necessarily dictate from Washington what situations work on a one-size-fits-all policy across the country.”
Bouchard said his department used its M113 armored vehicle during a 2012 active-shooter situation, in which Sgt. Patrick O’Rourke of the West Bloomfield Police Department was killed. Officers used the vehicle to evacuate families from neighboring homes. “That’s the reality. These things aren’t just nice to have. They save lives,” he said.
Sgt. Phil Abdoo, rangemaster for the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, said the county had also used its M113 armored vehicle to evacuate citizens in situations involving a barricaded gunman.
“The equipment is designed for protection. There’s no weapons on it — just a big, steel box,” said Abdoo, a former SWAT team member now in charge of Macomb’s mobile field force for civil unrest.
Luckily, the Pentagon has tentatively approved Macomb for an MRAP. Abdoo is hoping to pick it up shortly after official approval is received — potentially before February.
Abdoo understands why the public might be wary of police armed with grenade launchers; however, officers use them to fire tear gas or bean-bag rounds to quell unrest — not to launch explosives, he said. Bayonets also have multi-functional capabilities, such as using them for as a pry bar or to cut wires or seat belts.
Oakland County’s recalled bayonets were used by the sheriff’s office’s honor guard during ceremonial events, Bouchard said. East Lansing Police had 26 bayonets recalled that had never been used in the field, Lt. Scott Wriggelsworth said.
“I can’t foresee a scenario where we’d use them,” Wriggelsworth said. “We took them just because they were offered.”
The tracked armored vehicles are being sent to military ranges for use as more realistic targets for aviators and ground forces, said Susan Lowe, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency. Depending on their condition, the bayonets and grenade launchers may be destroyed or made available for reuse by other Pentagon customers, Lowe said.
Wriggelsworth disagrees with the recall of 1033 gear, particularly the tracked armored vehicles.
“Why wouldn’t local law enforcement want to be equipped to fight the war on terror?” he said. “There are some scenarios where we are going to look like the military or, even if we don’t look like them, we should be protected like the military. That’s what this federal program has helped us with for years.”