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How militarized are Washington’s police departments?

Protestors stand up in support of Michael Brown, the unarmed black youth shot in Ferguson, Missouri. Credit: Photo: Light Brigade

The wide-ranging list of military surplus goods acquired by Washington state law enforcement agencies through a U.S. Department of Defense program includes over a dozen mine-resistant vehicles, hundreds of M16 assault rifles, spare helicopter parts, pouches for human remains, bomb disposal robots and sniper scopes.

In recent days, the so-called 1033 program has come under intense scrutiny as protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have clashed with camouflage-clad police officers equipped with armored vehicles, assault rifles and tear gas. The protests began in the St. Louis suburb the day after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9.

The Defense Department program dates back to the 1990s. It enables local police forces nationwide to procure surplus military equipment, often for little more than the price of shipping and maintenance. During the first week of August, 114 agencies in Washington had 12,376 of those military surplus items on hand, which were valued at $23.9 million, according to records from the state's department of enterprise services.

Nationally, the program was used to transfer over $449 million of equipment to local law enforcement agencies during last year alone, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

The events in Ferguson have caused lawmakers and others to question whether local police departments have become over-militarized. And on Monday, President Barack Obama suggested that it may be time to review programs that funnel military equipment to police departments.

But law enforcement officials here in Washington say that the 1033 program provides a valuable pathway for their departments to access equipment that helps keep their officers and their jurisdictions safe, while also shielding taxpayers from pricey purchases.

"We've definitely been shot at several times," said Sgt. Jeff DeHan, who leads the SWAT team for the sheriff's office in Thurston County, which encompasses Olympia. 

In late April, DeHan's office became one of 17 Washington police departments to procure a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, through the 1033 program. The burly, truck-like vehicles commonly weigh between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds and are designed to withstand blasts from improvised explosive devices.

Normally, such a vehicle would have cost $733,000, according to the enterprise services records, but the sheriff's office only had to pay about $6,000 to have it shipped from Texas, according to DeHan. And a private company, he said, helped cover most of that cost. 

"All and all we're only going to be into it for a few thousand dollars," he said.

Why does the Thurston County Sheriff's Office need a battlefield-grade piece of equipment like an MRAP?

DeHan says that the department's last SWAT vehicle was akin to a UPS delivery truck and did not have any "ballistic protection." The armored vehicles that the Washington State Patrol owns, he said, are not always nearby or available on short notice.

He gave several recent examples of situations where people fired on officers from buildings and mentioned one instance where an officer was shot twice and wounded. DeHan considers the armored vehicle a huge asset in these types of situations. "You can't hide behind a little shield to move an entire team," he said.

According to DeHan, the vehicle could also prove useful after a flood, or other natural disasters like an earthquake.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper oversaw the Seattle Police Department's response to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. That response effort, which drew criticism for being overly militaristic, involved police in riot gear and hundreds of arrests. Stamper himself has expressed regret over some of the aggressive methods the department used to handle the protests. 

Watching events unfold in Ferguson in recent days has left him unsettled. "It's like someone handed them a script about how not to do things," Stamper said. "You just don't use those military tactics against non-violent protestors."

Stamper is not opposed to equipping SWAT teams with military gear, like Thurston County's MRAP. "What troubles me," he said, "is the use of military garb, and military equipment and military weaponry that creeps into the everyday life of a police force."

Former King County sheriff Sue Rahr echoed Stamper's concerns. Rahr is currently the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, the main academy for police recruits in the state. She has pushed to make the training commission's curriculum less boot camp-oriented and more focused on improving officers' interactions with the communities they serve.

Though she did not comment on the situation in Ferguson directly, Rahr believes that police departments in every community should have access to an armored vehicle so they can respond to incidents involving hostages or police officers pinned down by gunfire.

"It's not the equipment and the weapons that are the problem," she said. "It's how they're being used."

Clear protocols for when and how to deploy military-style tactics and gear are crucial, she said. During her time as King County Sheriff, Rahr insisted that her staff work for about six months to come up with guidelines for using explosives to blast open doors. 

"I wanted to make sure there was no confusion about when it was appropriate for using an explosive breach to enter a building," she said.

Not all of the military surplus equipment that has flowed into Washington went to local police departments looking to beef up their SWAT teams. 

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's enforcement division claimed 134 of the 631 M16 assault rifles that agencies in the state had acquired under the 1033 program, as of Aug. 5. That is the most M16s any agency in the state had received from the program at that time. Fish and Wildlife also got 38 semi-automatic M14 rifles, which fire a 7.62-millimeter round. That bullet is a higher caliber, and potentially more destructive, than the M16's 5.56-millimeter ammunition. The King County Sheriff's Office also has M14s, and considers them an effective firearm for "disabling" a boat or car, according to the office's media relations officer.

This chart shows the ten agencies that received the most M14 and M16 rifles through the Defense Department's 1033 program, as of Aug. 5, excluding Washington State Fish and Wildlife. Source: Washington State Department of Enterprise Services

Steve Crown, chief of Fish and Wildlife's enforcement division, says the department retrofits the M16s to make them similar to the civilian-grade version of the rifle, the AR15. While M16s can fire continuously, or in three short bursts, AR15s are typically semi-automatic and fire just one round each time the trigger is pulled. 

"They're very much like anything you can get across the counter from Cabela's by the time we're done with them," Crown said.

Fish and Wildlife officers, he noted, are fully commissioned police officers in Washington. As such, they use firearms not just to shoot and kill animals, but when carrying out law enforcement duties, including providing assistance to rural police departments. The agency also has a marijuana eradication team that deals with illegal pot growing operations, which, according to Crown, can involve cartels and some "pretty bad characters." 

"We assist county and city police officers with barricaded subjects. Some officers are on tactical teams that are regionally based," he said. "Particularly when you get to the east side of the state, there are very few law enforcement resources."

As for the M14 rifles? "There are very few of them that are deployed," Crown said. He added that the high caliber rifle is a more appropriate weapon to use when "you have to dispatch one of those large critters" such as a bull moose.

Fish and Wildlife also has a receipt pending for 10 bayonets that were apparently shipped on June 29. That order came as a surprise to Crown, who was uncertain why it was included in the enterprise services records. "If we have those," he said, "they're inside a box."

One of the biggest benefits of the 1033 program for Fish and Wildlife, Crown said, was that the agency was able to equip officers without spending much taxpayer money. "It's one of those things where, for pennies on the dollar, you're able to outfit folks," he said. "If the program were to go away, it would be very cost prohibitive to go to a manufacturer and get a rifle."

The gear agencies acquire through the 1033 program is not always put to use in day-to-day operations. 

Parts from a Huey helicopter the King County Sheriff's Office obtained were used to keep another Huey, which the office already owned, flying, according to Sgt. DB Gates, a media relations officer.

The department also obtained two armored trucks through the program. But after the county used a federal grant to get a new Lenco Bear armored vehicle for its SWAT team, one of the trucks was lent to the Bothell Police Department. The other, a semi-amphibious LAV-150, is parked. "It was thought it could be used during floods, however, the plugs and seals have eroded and it’s no longer water tight," Gates said in an email. For the last several years, she added, it "was only used for community events and displays."

Some of the sheriff's office acquisitions are being returned to the military — which is an eventual requirement for any armored vehicles, aircraft and a number of other items as well, according to Department of Enterprise Services spokesperson, Jennifer Reynolds.

Among the gear that the King County's Sheriff's Office plans to send back are 10 laser range finders intended for use by snipers and marksmen, which Gates says were too bulky, and a helicopter gearbox, which was not a suitable spare for the operational Huey. 

Departments around the state, including the King County Sheriff's Office, have also procured hundreds of other items that are not combat-related, like treadmills, an exercise bike valued at $3,500, outdoor grills, chainsaws, cooking pots, blankets and televisions.

Stamper suspects that there are local law enforcement agencies around the nation — especially in more rural areas — that have received equipment through the 1033 program that has no practical use. "You find there's no real application for it, so it just sits off in the corner and gathers dust," he said. "There's a lot of military equipment strewn across the landscape of America rusting out behind police stations."

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