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Militarized force and aggressive policing. What's in Triangle police arsenals?

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 7/2/2020 By Tammy Grubb, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

As Raleigh’s protests began, local journalists reported crowds of marchers being met by police in riot gear and volleys of tear gas, flash bangs and non-lethal, but painful sponge rounds and rubber bullets.

Armored trucks rolled through the streets. Helicopters circled overhead. The escalating violence led to scores of broken windows, fires and looting — the same scene playing out nationwide as people marched against police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

At the Public Safety Center on South Salisbury Street, protesters at the back entrance to the jail found Wake County sheriff’s deputies from a newly formed civil unrest unit armed with riot gear and tear gas. The deputies used a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle for cover as a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said some protesters threw rocks and bricks. The protesters were pushed back to the street.

Sheriff Gerald Baker agreed some people might think MRAPs and other military vehicles only add to a volatile situation, but they also have some rarely used advantages: protecting deputies, for example, while they rescue a victim during an active shooting call or try to get closer to someone who is armed and barricaded inside a home.

“We’re not here to (intimidate or rile up anyone), but we’re certainly going to use it if it’s going to keep our officers safe and help us get this job done in a safe manner, serving and protecting this county and the citizens here,” Baker said.

Studies over the last 50 years have shown that a militarized show of force by police can escalate tensions, according to research cited by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice.

That can include responding to a protest in ballistic helmets and body armor, armed with sponge or flash-bang grenade launchers and assault rifles, said Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, who was quoted by The Marshall Project. It’s not that police don’t need to be prepared for a more serious incident, he said, but that shouldn’t be their first move.

Seeing police respond as a “wartime occupying force” is not foreign to communities of color, Princeton University political scientist Jonathan Mummolo said in his 2018 report on the effects of militarization on crime, police safety and public perception.

The federal 1033 program, which began in 1990 as part of the War on Drugs, has supplied law enforcement with at least $7.4 billion in surplus Department of Defense military gear and non-tactical gear, such as first aid kits, clothing and computers, over the last 30 years.

The Raleigh Police Department doesn’t use the 1033 program — a growing trend among larger agencies. Instead, it buys its more military-style equipment from commercial retailers. The Wake County Sheriff’s Office has the MRAP and two rifle sights obtained through 1033.

While there isn’t enough data available on police use of military tactics and gear to make definitive conclusions, Mummolo said, his analysis of rare SWAT team data from Maryland showed the 1033 program has done little to reduce crime or improve officer safety.

Instead, he reports, it has damaged police agencies’ reputations and made it harder for them to work with the communities they serve.

Fewer agencies, many weapons

North Carolina has received over $26 million in tactical military gear through the 1033 program since 2010, federal data showed.

Over 297 law enforcement agencies statewide participate in the program, which is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). That’s only about 4% of the roughly 8,200 active participants reported nationwide. An ACLU report in 2014, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” found 17,000 active agencies in the program at that time.

Many started taking advantage of the program after the 9/11 terror attacks, and the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan added more, large military vehicles to the mix. In 2015, President Barack Obama rolled back parts of the program, but his order was reversed in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

Many Triangle area agencies have since returned their federal surplus equipment. Clyde Roper, spokesman for North Carolina’s Law Enforcement Support Services office, which manages the state’s 1033 program, said 78 weapons from eight agencies are being returned to the federal government, including from Orange and Wayne counties. COVID-19 has delayed the transfer, he said.

North Carolina agencies now have about $13.6 million in tactical gear and $3.7 million in non-tactical equipment, he said.

Roughly 92% of 1033 gear is non-tactical, the DLA reports. Another 5% includes pistols and high-caliber rifles, and less than 1% is boats, vehicles and aircraft stripped of their weapons and communications equipment. Only about a third of the equipment is in new condition.

There may be fewer agencies taking advantage of the program, but they still have a lot of military equipment, said Kenneth Lowande, an assistant professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan.

What the data doesn’t show is how much of that equipment is being used and how, he said.

“I’ve talked to police departments who say, we have 12 of these (M16s) but we just use them for honor guard or we just use them for target practice. They’re never actually deployed,” Lowande said. “It’s really difficult to understand that from the data.”

1033 vs. commercial dealers

Law enforcement agencies in North Carolina apply for 1033 equipment through the state program coordinator.

A local governing body must approve purchases, and the agency pays for shipping, storage and maintenance. Officers have to be trained annually in how to use the equipment, and the agency must use it within a year. Tactical equipment is returned to the Department of Defense when it’s no longer needed.

Police departments in both Raleigh and Durham dropped out of the 1033 program years ago and returned the equipment they did have. The Durham County Sheriff’s Office, the Cary Police Department and Smithfield Police Department also left the 1033 program.

In addition to its 1033 equipment, Wake County Sheriff’s Office records show the agency also spent over $1 million since January 2018 on commercial gear — 73% was for training technology that simulates real-life scenarios.

The training equipment, body armor, and body and in-car cameras that his department has been adding are more important that anything they could get through the federal program, Baker said. This year, the Sheriff’s Office bought over $38,500 worth of tear gas, pepper spray, gas masks and reusable flex cuffs for the civil unrest unit, which has been in the works since 2018, he said.

Sometimes they need specialized tools — and teams — to do a “very tough” job, Baker said.

“Most of us are here to keep people safe, protect and to keep things peaceful,” Baker said. “There are going to be times when things are going to happen that we must react to, and it may not be pretty, but sometimes it’s necessary, because if we don’t respond to it, then the (response) will be, well, (law enforcement was) sitting right here and they didn’t do anything.”

The Raleigh Police Department did not provide a list of equipment requested for this story, however, Durham Police Department data shows that agency has spent roughly $328,000 on weapons, body armor, pepper spray and other gear since January 2018.

Larger agencies, such as Raleigh police, Durham police and the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, are finding it easier to buy rifles on the commercial market, said Guilford Capt. Randy Shepherd. Guilford County also has 10 M16s and an MRAP vehicle from the 1033 program.

Although it can cost more, agencies often use grants or funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Program, which is money seized during criminal investigations, to buy new equipment.

“Honestly, the 1033 program is good for agencies that don’t have the funding to get equipment or things like the MRAP that aren’t really commercially available,” Shepherd said, “but it comes with a lot of inventory requirements and other hoops you’ve got to jump through in order to maintain good standing in the program.”

How vehicles get used

The Wake Forest Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office also got MRAP vehicles through the 1033 program in 2017. Wake Forest also is listed as having an armored truck, but the department no longer has that vehicle, spokesman Bill Crabtree said.

That was the same year the Chapel Hill Police Department got an armored truck — a 1981 Dodge Peacekeeper — which it uses to train the Special Emergency Response Team and for demonstrations during the Community Police Academy, spokesman Ran Northam said.

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said his agency has used its MRAP in responding to floods and hurricanes. In 2018, they took it to Carrboro to help police there in a standoff with a barricaded man.

Orange County also got an armored personnel carrier in 2003 and used it for several years before finding out it’s not bullet resistant, Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes said. MRAPs, which cost near $700,000, are designed to withstand bullets and explosions.

Blackwood had planned to get a mobile command center with asset forfeiture money this year, but after calls to defund police, he offered instead to hire a clinical social worker and help train county employees, as well as law enforcement agencies statewide, in handling situations involving people with a serious mental health crisis.

The Sheriff’s Office also had 20 M16 rifles that former Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass got about 15 years ago, because he was concerned the county was “never going to give us anything,” Blackwood said. They rarely came out of the closet, he said, and are being returned.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office did not have immediate access to its records, citing ongoing problems from a March cyberattack, but spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen confirmed 32 M16s were returned to the 1033 program several years ago.

Data, culture and reform

If the federal government ended the 1033 program, it could help demilitarize the culture of many law enforcement agencies without increasing crime or the number of officer assaults and deaths, Lowande said.

Better data and tracking of equipment and incidents also would help with police reform, Lowande and Casey Delehanty, assistant professor of global studies at Gardner-Webb University, said.

What he has found in the data he was able to get, Delehanty said, is that ending the 1033 program also could reduce excessive use-of-force incidents. His 2017 report compared the number of police-involved deaths in four states with how much 1033 gear was on hand.

The research also looked by county at median household income, total population, Black population, violent crime and civilian drug use to avoid biased estimates, he said, as well as the number of dogs killed by the law enforcement agencies in each county studied.

“We found a pretty significant relationship between the amount of equipment that an agency receives and the amount of civilians (and dogs) who die at the hands of police,” he said. “The departments that received the most equipment had more than double the killings of civilians than the departments that received the least.”

A University of South Carolina researcher found a similar correlation in 2018 using data from all 50 states, Delehanty said.

The 1033 program is just one factor of police militarization, Lowande said, citing the use of no-knock warrants, agency culture and the number of military veterans working as police officers. The increasing use of SWAT teams for basic police work also is a factor, he said.

Lowande and Delehanty pointed to Mummolo’s work analyzing SWAT team — Special Weapons and Tactics — deployments in Maryland between 2010 and 2014. Mummolo also looked at violent crime and assaults on officers in 9,000 agencies with SWAT units.

The results showed SWAT teams were deployed 90% of the time to serve search warrants, instead of addressing violent emergency situations for which they were created, and most of those deployments were in communities of color.

That kind of aggressive, militarized police action can lead to situations like the killing of Breonna Taylor, when Louisville Metro Police entered her house based on bad information, Delehanty said. The real question is why police were there in the first place, he said.

What’s encouraging, Delehanty said, is that the protests are focusing on systemic policing issues instead of “bad apples.”

“I’m skeptical that small reforms are going to deliver change in the way that we want it here,” Delehanty said. “We need dramatic changes in oversight of police especially, and their accountability to local communities is also very, very lacking.”

Baker said he learned a similar truth over the last 30 years: Every officer and agency has to accept responsibility and accountability.

“We’re not going to lie about it. We’re not going to make it appear that it didn’t happen,” Baker said. “We’re going to take responsibility for it, and I think if we make sure there’s that type of leadership in every agency across this country, that’s when you’re going to begin to see the change that everyone’s looking for.”

Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown was contacted for this story, but was not available for an interview, her spokeswoman said.

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©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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