Transferring military surplus to law enforcement agencies has bred suspicion in the wake of unrest such as the recent protests in Missouri, but local police officers and sheriff's deputies maintain the items they've acquired, despite their origin, are tools of the job.
York Sheriff Danny Diggs said the militarization of police has been a topic of conversation in the national media, citing the aftermath in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen shot and killed by police on Aug. 9. Diggs called it the “red button issue of the day,” noting stun guns were the subject of public concern at one time. Body cameras, he added, are poised to be next. Diggs said he considers alleged militarization a “nonexistent problem” and a “manufactured issue.”
In 2013, about $449.3 million worth of military surplus equipment was transferred to law enforcement, according to the program website.
“We carefully consider the purpose, need and financial impact when acquiring equipment for police use,” said Deputy Chief Stephen Rubino with James City County police. “Our goal is to provide the officers with the tools they need to effectively, professionally and safely perform their duties.”
York County's acquisition of a mine resistant, ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, the item most recently acquired by a Peninsula law enforcement agency, has drawn significant attention. In years past, James City, Williamsburg, Hampton, Newport News and even the College of William and Mary have requested items, primarily firearms.
William and Mary received four M-16 rifles from the program in 2008, according to interim Police Chief Ed Schardein. The guns were never issued to officers and remain secured in a safe, but Schardein said they are kept on hand in case of a “dire emergency.”
Brian Whitson, spokesman for the college, said the phrase Schardein used does not refer to a one-time incident, but a national threat or a developing crime trend. Whitson refused a request to photograph the four M-16s, saying in an email, “We're not doing a photo op with weapons that are not in use.”
Schardein said soon after the firearms were obtained, the department was able to replace its handguns with models that had a compatible carbine rifle, meaning both weapons used the same type of magazine.
Diggs recognizes the concerns of the public, even recently addressing them in a Facebook post about the MRAP that discussed how the vehicle would be deployed in both inclement weather and emergency situations. He said the vehicle cost his office about $6,000 in transport costs, which were paid with money recovered from drug dealers.
His post admits the armored vehicle is bigger than he would have liked, but notes the smaller civilian version would have cost approximately $400,000. At that cost, Diggs said he never would have purchased it.
“It's just a tool,” Diggs said of the MRAP in his Facebook post. “Just like the guns we wear every day.”
Asked about the appearance of police during the Ferguson protests, he said “How would you expect the police to show up to a looting riot situation?” and said officers wouldn't arrive in jeans and ball caps.
Diggs recalled that in the early 2000s state and local officers donned riot gear and displayed an armored truck to deter potential uproar when a group of white supremacists arrived in York County. He said militarization wasn't an issue on anyone's mind.
James City received a total of 55 M-16 rifles and 12 M-14 rifles in 2004 and 2011 through the surplus program, according to Rubino. In 2003, the department received 32 weapons sights and 18 pairs of binoculars.
The department paid $1,800 in 2011 to ship 52 rifles, which were otherwise free of charge, Rubino said. He added that in 2004 the M-16s the department obtained were valued at $1,200 each.
Rubino said cost is the biggest benefit of the program.
“Incidents across the nation in the late '90s demonstrated the need for police to add long guns (patrol rifles),” he said. “This provided police with necessary equipment to address deadly threats at a greater and safer distance more accurately.”
Officer Holly McPherson, spokeswoman for Newport News police, said her department has 75 M-16 and 10 M-14 rifles acquired through the surplus program. Records held by Virginia State Police, which administers the program in Virginia, show the firearms were received in two batches in 2006 and 2012.