CHAPEL HILL Orange County’s law enforcement agencies are banding together to target local concerns about military equipment, training and policies through a series of public forums and September reports.
Carrboro and Chapel Hill officials are ironing out the details now of several question-and-answer forums. Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said more information will be released as it becomes available.
The local effort comes on the heels of an American Civil Liberties Union report earlier this summer and the police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo.. Both have put a spotlight on the role that surplus military gear, particularly armored vehicles, play in local law enforcement efforts.
The Obama administration also is reviewing Department of Defense surplus programs for their appropriateness, how they train local agencies to use the equipment and how well the federal department tracks how local agencies use the money and equipment provided through the programs.
More than 17,000 agencies participate in the federal 1033 Program, one of several federal surplus programs. In 2013, the 1033 program provided agencies with nearly $450 million in military equipment, the ACLU reported.
Orange County’s law enforcement agencies “share a policing philosophy that emphasizes outreach, partnerships and community collaboration,” a news release stated Tuesday. Blue said local agencies are proud of their work but understand the community has high expectations.
“There are folks in our communities that have questions about how we respond,” he said. “Given some of the discussion about policing tactics and equipment, we thought it would be appropriate to speak to those concerns.”
The ACLU’s 2014 report – largely concerning special police response, or SWAT, units – found that local agencies are getting ballistic vests, night vision scopes and other less-lethal equipment through federal programs.
Neither Carrboro’s nor Hillsborough’s police departments reported having any armored vehicles, according to Tuesday’s news release. Blue said Chapel Hill has an armored car to keep officers and residents safe during hostage situations and other high-risk calls. It has never been used, he said.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, reported getting surplus gear for more than 20 years. ACLU data shows the department got a V150 armored personnel carrier in 2007. It was used once, to arrest an armed, barricaded suspect in a populated neighborhood.
The department’s most common purchase is pickup trucks, which the news release said roll out most often during inclement weather to help county staff and residents with health concerns. The department also has two five-ton military trucks for removing downed trees from the roads.
Carrboro and Chapel Hill police will report to their respective boards this month about the use of military surplus equipment, training and policies. Carrboro police spokesman Lt. Chris Atack said it’s important to have that dialogue and also to balance community concerns with officer safety.
“I come to work every day knowing we have good people making good decisions,” Atack said.
Documenting those good decisions are an important part of community policing, local officials said. To that end, the Hillsborough Police Department bought nine body cameras for patrol officers this year and is in the process of implementing them to document evidence collection and investigate public complaints.
Police Chief Duane Hampton will update the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners about the program Sept. 8. He also will talk about the department’s revised policies, including when, how and how often officers can use force.
Carrboro and Chapel Hill could add body cameras in the next few years, officials said.
Local agencies and their communities have talked about police tactics for some time. Chapel Hill revised its special response and use of force policies in 2012 to answer community concerns about an armed 2011 raid on Occupy protesters at a vacant Franklin Street business. Carrboro police and the Board of Aldermen also debated the local police response when protesters turned their attention in 2012 to a new CVS planned for downtown.
Hillsborough has had similar conversations, most recently debuting the department’s revised use of force policy at a December community summit.
All three departments’ policies emphasize community outreach and collaboration. In Chapel Hill, residents can participate in the Community Safety Partnership Program, Community Police Academies held twice a year or Community Police Advisory Committee monthly meetings.
Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough also started meeting with residents this year as part of the nationwide Coffee with a Cop program. The program brings police and the public together in a casual setting to talk and share information. The next scheduled event is Sept. 18 in Carrboro.