By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Video footage and photos depicting Ferguson, Mo., police acting more like soldiers on the battlefield has catalyzed a national debate over the role of military hardware in local law enforcement. But while Kansas cops have received everything from grenade launchers to mine-resistant armored vehicles, few — if any — have an issue with it.
“I don’t have any drawbacks,” Brian Fenner, Sheridan County sheriff, said of the federal 1033 program. “I think it’s a good program. It helps the counties with low budgets, they can acquire some equipment that’s needed in our rural areas.”
Fenner’s agency benefited from the federal program in a number of ways, its most high-profile acquisition a pair of M-79 grenade launchers the sheriff’s office got in the 1990s. Fenner told Kansas Watchdog the office asked for them strictly as a backup to existing 37-mm tear gas guns, but they’ve never been used.
Still more impressive, and intimidating, equipment has been distributed to other law enforcement agencies in Kansas. Sheriff Randy Rogers of Coffey County said last fall his office received a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — better known as an MRAP — because of its unique proximity to Kansas’ Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant.
“The MRAP gives us the ability to fulfill certain requirements that I cannot disclose concerning the nuclear plant,” Rogers said. “Our citizens understand our commitment to the nuclear plant and know that there come certain obligations with the nuclear plant.”
Pentagon data compiled by the Detroit Free Press, as well as information provided by the State of Kansas through an open records request, sheds light on the true breadth of military-grade hardware in the hands of local cops. From armored vehicles to thousands of firearms, the nation’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left local police forces well-equipped.
But Holly Weatherford, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said it doesn’t come without a price.
“We’re definitely seeing the flow of weapons from the (U.S.) Department of Defense to local law enforcement in Kansas, and what we do know is that militarization makes communities less safe, and it undermines individual liberty,” she told Kansas Watchdog.
Weatherford pointed to an ACLU report released in June detailing the increasingly-militarized response of law enforcement across the country in the form of SWAT raids encouraged by the acquisition of military equipment. According to the ACLU, “(n)early 80 percent of the SWAT raids the ACLU studied were conducted to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases.”
“It destroys peoples’ homes, it terrifies people and it undermines public safety,” she noted.
Weatherford said she found it difficult to understand in what scenario rural Kansas police would need a grenade launcher.
While the Dodge City Police Department has a single grenade launcher on hand, chief Craig Mellecker told Kansas Watchdog it serves as a backup for tear gas launchers and has been collecting dust ever since its acquisition in 1997.
Mellecker said he’s a big proponent of the 1033 program, “as long as you request items that you have a need for.” He couldn’t provide specific examples, but he referenced a handful of news reports over the past decade in which law enforcement have acquired equipment he thought was excessive or unnecessary.
“I know that even before all this stuff in Ferguson there has been concerns that I’ve seen voiced on TV and in newspapers about the militarization of law enforcement,” Mellecker said. “I look at some of the big events over the past 15 years, 20 years. The L.A. bank robbery shootout, I know after that occurred our chief at the time authorized us to carry rifles, and before that all we had was our side arm and a 12-gauge shotgun in our cars.”
Rogers approaches the issue from a pragmatic perspective.
“I believe that it is better that the equipment be utilized than to have it set in a warehouse somewhere and not be of use,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies around the country struggle every day to equip and protect our officers. We are constantly being asked to do more with less.”
Rogers went so far as to say police have an obligation to use surplus equipment appropriately and not waste or misuse it. Despite describing little negative reaction locally, he acknowledged public perception will vary across the state.
“The composition of one’s jurisdiction may dictate how equipment received by local law enforcement is viewed,” Rogers said.
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