The riots in Ferguson, Mo., brought attention to a federal program that provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, including some in the Triangle.
But while the attention has focused on assault rifles and armored personnel carriers, Triangle police and sheriff’s departments say most of what they get from the program is much more benign, including computers, office furniture, jumper cables and coffeemakers.
Raleigh police, for instance, have used the federal Law Enforcement Services Section program to acquire a gun cabinet, gun rack, wire cages, a storage cabinet and graveyard registration kit, but no weapons, both state and police department records show.
Some Triangle agencies have received weapons and vehicles through the program, but say their use is limited to specific scenarios by their SWAT teams, including hostage takings or an active shooter situation. The Harnett County Sheriff’s Department has a land mine-resistant vehicle that it received through the program that Sheriff Larry Rollins says is chiefly deployed as a defensive measure, “to extricate an injured officer in a highly dangerous scenario.”
“We have a lot of military personnel living in the community,” said Rollins, noting Fort Bragg is nearby. “We never know what types of weapons they might have.”
Critics of the LESS program have focused on the use of military-grade weaponry such as assault rifles, body armor and armored vehicles by police and sheriff’s departments. The images of heavily armed police officers facing protesters in Ferguson prompted President Barack Obama to order a review of the program.
And in June, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” that criticized the “militarization” of police departments across the country that disproportionately targets people of color while viewing them as the enemy.
The ACLU report focused on more than 800 SWAT raids conducted by law enforcement agencies in 20 states, including North Carolina, and found that “police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs,” said Kara Dansky, a senior counsel for the ACLU’s Center for Justice.
While some Triangle law agencies have tactical weaponry acquired through LESS, other departments do not use, or stopped relying altogether, on the program to bolster their crime-fighting arsenals.
Durham police reported a cache of M-16 rifles obtained through the program that were converted to semi-automatics and issued to patrol sharpshooters. The department also has one armored vehicle, said spokeswoman Kammie Michael.
The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office does not possess any weapons from the military surplus program, said Sheriff Richard Webster. Ditto for the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office.
“We did possess 17 M-14 rifles, however on May 5, 2009, these rifles were returned,” Sheriff Steve Bizzell said.
The Chapel Hill Police Department acquired an armored vehicle through LESS in 2011. Police spokesman Joshua Mecimore said the vehicle is used primarily as a rescue vehicle. The department has also acquired spotting scopes, binoculars and uniforms that its officers can use while training.
Orange County Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass was surprised to read in The New York Times last month that his office has six armored vehicles.
“We have one,” Pendergrass said. “The rest of what they sent us was junk, J-U-N-K. At one point in time we would send for vehicles to get surplus parts. We were taking parts from the others to make the one we had run. Maybe that’s where the mixup came from.”
Pendergrass said the vehicle was last used about five years ago when deputies drove it to the home of a man his deputies were going to serve with involuntary commitment papers.
“The man had barricaded himself in the house. He had done gone berserk,” Pendergrass said. “We pulled the vehicle up to a window and threw tear gas inside. He came on out.”
Nowadays the armored truck sits unused, except when visiting schoolchildren clamber on it.
The New York Times reported that Wake County has 18 helicopters, but an inventory list made public by the state Department of Public Safety indicated the county has seven, all acquired in 2006.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said none of the aircraft are among his office’s crime fighting arsenal.
State Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker declined to say which Wake County agencies have the helicopters.
“Respectfully,” Walker stated in an email to The News & Observer, “we will not be providing any agency specific information on the ‘tactical’ list. I’m sure you can understand that providing that information would be providing a lot of information to people who would use it to the detriment of our law enforcement professionals and potentially the public.”
Still, Rollins, the Harnett sheriff, was hopeful that his longtime friend Harrison had the choppers.
Rollins said, “Tell Donnie if he has them helicopters, I want one.”