by Eric Ginsburg
A government program makes military gear available to domestic law-enforcement agencies for free, but the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and High Point Police Department haven’t received anything in years. The Greensboro Police Department is still deciding whether it’s even worth signing up.
The heavy-handed police response to anti-police brutality demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. drew attention to a national trend of militarized police forces, but local law enforcement agencies haven’t changed much lately.
A federal program makes surplus military equipment — from night-vision goggles to grenade launchers to aircraft — available to local law enforcement for free, but the amount of surplus that has gone to High Point police is negligible.
“The only military surplus items we have are 30 Vietnam war-era rifles and one night-vision sight from the same time period,” Lt. Mark Lane said. “These items have been in our inventory for 10 or more years.”
The story is about the same for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office — 10 M-16 rifles that were turned into semi-automatic weapons and four M-14 rifles that issue a .308 caliber round, Capt. Randy Shepherd said.
“We had originally gotten those [M-14s] as a backup sniper weapon but they’ve got so much age on them right now they’re in storage, honestly,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve actually received anything. Oh gosh, it’s been well over 10 years ago.”
The Greensboro Police Department isn’t even enrolled in the Excess Property Program, which is also known as the 1033 Program, but has recently been considering it. Police spokesperson Susan Danielsen said she isn’t sure how seriously it is still being considered, but said that the department hasn’t applied yet.
“We had the paperwork for that program and, having served in the military for 24 years, they asked my opinion,” she said. “You have to look at the equipment readiness code. You also have to account for that equipment rather strictly and provide paperwork to [the US Defense Department]. It’s not just like you go shopping at Uncle Sam and you have this fabulous thing. In some instances that’s true but it’s surplus for several reasons.”
Danielsen — who also worked for military contractors DynCorp and a subsidiary of Wackenhut in Qatar and Afghanistan respectively — is hesitant about the program but said the department is still evaluating it.
“They’re just trying to make sure that the equipment we obtain is worth all of the effort,” she said. “I think what initially caught their eye was some type of robot that might have been helpful with our hazardous devices team.”
The Winston-Salem Police Department and Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Just because local agencies don’t have a significant amount of surplus through the federal program doesn’t mean they aren’t equipped with military-grade gear purchased commercially. Shepherd noted that High Point and Greensboro police departments both have armored vehicles that the sheriff’s office utilizes.
“If we could find a military surplus vehicle that would fulfill that same need… that’s something I could see us wanting in the future,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we need and can use that are the exact same things that are used by the military. We could use night vision to search for missing kids at night or off-road [vehicles] for difficult situations during snowstorms. Some things we can’t justify spending taxpayer money on to buy it new.”
Despite the paperwork and the fact that the department “almost always” needs to pay to upgrade or alter the equipment, it is still often more cost efficient to obtain surplus than buy equipment commercially, Shepherd said.
According to a report by the New York Times, the amount of surplus that has been acquired through the defense department program in Guilford and Forsyth counties is minimal. The only surplus that wound up in Forsyth County is one armored vehicle, while 59 assault rifles arrived in Guilford County. But the report notes that the surplus could be going state or local agencies based in the county.
But even a relatively small amount of military gear being used by local law enforcement is a cause for concern because of what it signifies, Greensboro College professor Jon Epstein said.
Epstein, who has served as a consultant for various police departments and is on Winston-Salem’s police review board, said the militarization of police shows a perceived loss of control despite national trends of crime and drug-use rates dropping.
“After 9/11, fear became the paradigm,” he said. “The whole idea of military stuff became normalized. In a capitalist system, [the military-industrial complex] has to have a market that’s either expanding or is designed to be replaced regularly.”
That expansion, he said, will be to local law enforcement agencies, something encouraged by the defense department program but extends well beyond it.
“I do understand the police’s point of view,” he continued. “It’s scary. We make guns so readily available it’s almost like an arms race between the police and the public.”
Capt. Shepherd said he understands why people are upset that local law enforcement in Ferguson or elsewhere look like the military, but added that it makes sense for more than financial reasons.
“At the end of the day they’re called out to do the same things as the military sometimes, because they are there to dodge bullets and restore order,” Shepherd said. “You want every advantage on your side when you’re trying to restore order to something like that.
“There’s a fine line between the police state and the police being equipped to do their job,” he continued. “I think the 1033 Program is allowing law enforcement to be equipped the way they need to, to do the job when the time comes. At the end of the day, dodging bullets is a dangerous business.”