By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Not too far from Hampton Roads and just nine miles north of the North Carolina border, the rural city of Franklin, Va., is home to farmland, 8,638 people and one military-grade, mine-resistant vehicle.
The police force is of one of the smallest among the more than 100 localities in the commonwealth receiving surplus military equipment through the U.S. Department of Defense Excess Property Program.
Over the past couple of decades, more than 100 local police agencies in the commonwealth have gotten hold of combat gear the military no longer needs, from grenade launchers to riot gear to rifles to an MRAP.
Franklin City Police Chief Phil Hardison said he’s well aware of people’s concerns and the discussions of the militarization of police — but the safety of residents and his 30 well-trained officers is his primary concern.
“I understand there’s been a lot of discussion across the country, a fair amount of criticism against these vehicles, but local and state law enforcement are citizens’ first line of defense,” he said. “… There’s a high probability that they (people who criticize the program) have never been engaged in events that have the capacity and the ability to be immediately life-threatening to them or members of the community that they are responsible for providing safety.”
Still, local authorities possessing the same equipment to police the citizenry that the U.S. military uses against its enemies worries civil liberties experts like John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute.
“I hear the argument all the time that criminals have big guns, but when I see a criminal with an MRAP, you’ve got me on your side,” Whitehead said.
Hardison said the armored vehicle protects his officers and the residents they serve in a way other technology simply can’t.
“The world we live in, I don’t see violence as becoming any less of a trend, and these are valuable resources to agencies like mine and others across the country where there are no budgets to secure procurement of armored vehicles for an agency of our size,” Hardison told Watchdog.org.
The proximity of the military presence in the Norfolk area made it simpler for Hardison to request the technology, which, he says, would have proven useful in the past — and will help in future uncertain events.
“It could be used in a number of different ways,” Hardison said. “ You could have something as common as a domestic call that turns into a barricade situation that turns into an armored encounter with law enforcement. And vehicles like this are helpful in getting our personnel to the scene safely. … It could be at a school. It could be at a workplace shooting. There’s just a multitude of scenarios that you could work from.”
But Whitehead said Virginians need more proof than possible scenarios, mentioning that some stats have violent crime nationally at historic lows.
“The history shows, (Thomas) Jefferson, (James) Madison, they all warned against it,” Whitehead said. “They said, Don’t create a standing army. … Once they’re armed like this, you can’t disagree. I think the overall concern is a totalitarian, authoritarian police industrial complex.”
When local police departments essentially have the same capabilities in dealing with American citizens that military forces might against an enemy, Whitehead said, civil liberties must prevail over possibilities of danger.
“The big concern is do we have local police anymore?” Whitehead said. “… I think it’s one of the most onerous, disturbing developments I’ve ever seen.”
Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.