Story By BRIAN DOWLING, firstname.lastname@example.org
The grenade launcher locked in an armory at the West Hartford Police Department was a gift of the U.S. Department of Defense.
In Stratford, police have a Huey, the Army helicopter that flew combat operations over Vietnam. The local police department acquired the aircraft along with four pilot helmets, and a tank for aircraft fuel, at no cost beyond shipping and handling.
And in more than a dozen towns from Fairfield to Willimantic, excess military vehicles, decked in armor, now sit in public safety garages, their missions dog-eared for the type of active-shooter situations and natural disasters that police see say is increasingly pressing on local agencies.
“As the military gets the next-generation equipment, they pass these down to law enforcement, which when you don’t have anything, the second-generation is better than nothing,” said West Hartford Lt. Ted Stoneburner. He added that the department’s M79 grenade launcher, an item also in the hands of Meriden and Woodbridge police, is designed to launch gas canisters, not explosives.
Police in Ferguson, Mo., this week donned combat protective gear, armed themselves with M-16s, and perched on military-style vehicles as they watched citizens protest the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The impact of these visuals have jumpstarted a nationwide discussion about Defense Department hardware traveling from military depots to local police armories.
Ferguson, like countless local law enforcement agencies around the country, at least 70 in Connecticut, has tapped into the main federal program that outfits police departments with military hardware.
In the past five years, state and local police in Connecticut have acquired $12.9 million of military hardware through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, according to documents acquired by The Courant through a Freedom of Information Act request. The millions have come in forms as varied as high-powered weapons, elliptical cross trainers, and cold weather overalls.
Police officials around the state say the program has been vital to upgrade their aging equipment while town budgets are increasingly strained. Many spoke openly about their guns and armored vehicles, while some failed to return requests for comment. Two police departments, in Hartford and Bridgeport, in response to public information requests about their acquisition of military hardware, claimed they had no inventory from the 1033 program, while federal records show the two cities store more than $860,000 of the equipment.
Recently, lawmakers and administration officials have cast critical views on the program and the use of military equipment by local police. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday, “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, writing in Time magazine this week, called for the demilitarization of local police agencies, a problem he said is rooted in the federal government.
“Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement,” he said.
Nationally, the program has disbursed more than $4.3 billion in equipment to state and municipal police departments since its inceptions in 1997, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has researched the issue nationally. More than 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies participate in the program, a version of which was first authorized in the National Defense Authorization Act for 1990 and 1991.
In Connecticut, the federal program sent nearly 600 M-16s to police, also 29 12-gauge shotguns, 32 utility trucks, 112 magazine cartridges, 28 .45-caliber pistols, seven armored trucks and three helicopters.
Stratford, with its helicopter, has acquired the most equipment, as measured by dollar value, through the program, followed by New Britain, Hartford, Watertown, Madison and Windsor. Measured by items received, the Yale University Police Department has the most, at 1,133 pieces, though none are weapons. (Instead, it acquired items like trousers, first aid kits, jackets, tents and tourniquets.)
Police chiefs and captains say the equipment is necessary to move tactical teams into and out of delicate, high-pressure situations, where having a vehicle that can take a few rounds is invaluable. Capt. Christopher Davis of the Manchester police department, which has received an armored vehicle and a couple of rifles through the federal acquisition program, said just the vehicle’s presence can make a hairy situation easier to solve.
“It can have an effect of where it can de-escalate a situation because when they see the resources that are out there, outside a house, they may give up quicker,” Davis said. “It may end the situation quicker, realizing the severity of the equipment that’s available to us.”
Manchester was one of 11 Connecticut towns to request an MRAP, or mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, which has a V-shaped hull built to withstand explosions from below. Versions of the vehicles weigh up to 24 tons, can transport a 10-person team, and would cost about $750,000 if purchased normally. Other towns with MRAPs are Farmington, Hartford, Madison, Middletown, New Britain, Trumbull, Waterbury, Watertown, Willimantic and Windsor, according to program documents.
By the time the MRAP was approved for Manchester through the 1033 program, it had already received a different armored vehicle through a separate federal program. Realizing two would be too much, Manchester donated it to Newington police.
“It’s the size of a small oil delivery truck,” said Newington Police Chief Richard Mulhall.
He sent two officers to Texas to pick it up and drive it back in order to save on the shipping fees. It averages 5 to 10 miles per gallon of fuel, Mulhall estimates. Now sitting in a storage site away from the department headquarters, the desert-tan MRAP will be painted to seem like it fits New England more than the Middle East.
Mulhall said the MRAP might not be perfect for the mission.
“I’m not sure the MRAP is the right vehicle. But it is offered, and the alternative is they’re going to destroy it. We looked at it carefully,” Mulhall said. No police chief wants their department to become an arm of the military, he said.
“It is something that we look at often,” Mulhall said. The vast majority of the time the department will look like the everyday municipal force. “That’s not going to stop.”
“But when you’re called out on these other situations, you’re entering into a critical incident where the threat levels are ratcheted up to a high level, you try to afford the protection to the police officers and the civilians who are the innocent bystanders.”
These local police agencies increasingly acquiring armored vehicles and high-powered rifles comes at a time when violent crime around the state and the country is dropping, and departments are embracing a new model of community policing. The Hartford Police Department, which has received two armored vehicles through the 1033 program as well as 35 M-16 rifles, a shotgun and more than 20 .45 caliber pistols, said the vehicle runs against its vision of police officers as street-level public safety personnel.
“It certainly does not play into our community policing model,” said Hartford’s Deputy Chief Brian Foley.
State and local police in Connecticut have acquired $12.9 million of military hardware through the Pentagon's 1033 program since the program's inception in 1998, according to documents acquired by The Courant through a Freedom of Information Act request. The millions have come in forms as varied as high-powered weapons, elliptical cross trainers, and cold weather overalls.
In Hartford, Police Chief James Rovella said in an April 2013 letter to ACLU staff attorney David McGuire that no applications made for equipment or inventories of equipment exist “within the Hartford Police Department.”
Documents provided by the Connecticut Military Department, which runs applications and equipment transfers for police departments, show Hartford has received more than $850,000 in equipment in recent years, most of which was last inventoried by federal officials in late January 2014.
In a statement, McGuire said: “There's a very real danger to democracy when police departments get military weapons and technology without oversight and transparency, then use broad Freedom of Information exemptions to avoid disclosing what they've acquired.” The ACLU, he said, will push for more transparency and public oversight of these equipment transfers.
Numerous calls to Hartford police officials about the discrepancy have not been returned.
Bridgeport City Attorney Gregory Conte responded to a similar request in August 2013 that the city’s police department had no inventory of 1033 equipment. He and officials in his office have not returned numerous calls for comment. Documents from the state Military Department show the city has 14 M-14 rifles, last inventoried by federal officials in January 2014.
Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the federal program sent $12.9 million in equipment to Connecticut agencies over the past five years. That amount is the value of what the Department of Defense's Law Enforcement Support Office sent to agencies since the program began in 1998.
SOURCE: Connecticut Military Department