Images of civil unrest and police officers armed head to toe in military-grade equipment in Ferguson, Mo., don’t sit well with Augusta resident Ry Miller. Even more unsettling is the thought of local militarized police.
After days of protest following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer, Miller said he felt intimidated by pictures of police officers strapping themselves in riot gear and toting assault rifles.
He said that sends the wrong message to civilians, who should not be treated like insurgents terrorizing an occupying force.
“Military equipment is engineered to kill your opponent,” he said. “Deploying this gear sends the clear message that law enforcement is ready to kill you if you do not comply. It reminds me of that ED-209 robot in RoboCop.”
Thanks to the 1033 Program, started in the early 1990s and run by the Defense Logistics Agency since 1995, some of the same equipment used in Ferguson is owned by law enforcement agencies in the Augusta area.
In July, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had acquired more than $3.4 million in equipment since January. Among the items were several Humvees, a boat and a mine-resistant vehicle. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office acquired more than 50 M16 rifles, and the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office has a mine-resistant vehicle and two Humvees in its fleet.
The North Augusta Department of Public Safety, which services a population of just more than 20,000, also has taken advantage of the program, acquiring a mine-resistant vehicle in September 2013 valued at $658,000. At the time, Chief John Thomas said the agency had “to be proactive.”
Though some fear excessive displays of force by law enforcement officers, Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said there is little to worry about in Augusta.
“How many times have you seen (Humvees) on the streets of Augusta, Ga.,” he said. “Unless you were out during the ice storm, you haven’t seen them. … The goal is to use them when necessary.”
According to the Defense Logistics Agency’s Web site, more than 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies use the program, which allows them to access surplus material from the Department of Defense.
Agencies can place requests for equipment only once they have been approved to participate in the program by the Law Enforcement Support Office, and they must have justification for the equipment. Items that can be acquired through the program range from frying pans and griddles to M16s and mine-resistant vehicles.
The prevalence of military equipment in American police forces has also caused some legislators to reconsider the program. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told The Associated Press responses such as what was seen in Ferguson have “become the problem instead of the solution.” The trend pushed Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., to introduce legislation to curtail the acquisition of military equipment.
A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that $4.3 billion worth of property had been transferred through the 1033 Program. The value of the property in 2013 reached nearly $450 million, up from $324 million in 1995. The equipment is transferred at no cost to the receiving agency.
In its report, the ACLU expressed concern for how the equipment is used during SWAT deployments, especially ones involving drug busts.
“The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics to conduct ordinary law enforcement – especially to wage the failed War on Drugs and most aggressively in communities of color – has no place in contemporary society,” the report said.
The group calls for greater transparency and more oversight when it comes to military-grade equipment used by SWAT teams. Most of the area law enforcement agencies have policies that correspond with the ACLU’s recommendations.
Blanchard said he recognizes that there is room for abuse when it comes military-grade equipment, but that it’s no different to trust an officer carrying his duty weapon.
“The equipment is never the issue,” he said. “It’s whose hands it’s in, who’s in charge and how it’s used.”
Nathan Cox, who lived in Columbia County for more than 30 years before moving to New Mexico, said he is familiar with the 1033 Program and supports the acquisition of minor gear including gas-powered generators and finger print scanners. The vehicles, though, are a different story.
“I feel as a citizen in the USA, freedom is paramount and I shouldn’t have to fear my police force,” he said. “But when I see my local police force dressed up and (weaponized) up just like a soldier in a war, it makes me wonder about the place I live in.”
Aiken County sheriff’s Capt. Eric Abdullah said vehicles are used in more ways than what is shown in the news. He declined to comment on the situation in Ferguson because he believes what happens in other agencies “is their own issue to handle.”
“Those vehicles are multipurpose and, of course, we have different roles we use them for,” he said, adding that the Humvees were used extensively during the February ice storm to transport nurses to local hospitals.
Abdullah said the easiest way for police to ease tensions with alarmed citizens is by keeping an open line of communication between them and the agency.
“Law enforcement today needs the help of its citizens, and we need to continue to build a strong partnership with our citizens,” he said.
Associated Press reports were used in this story.