The question of deadly force by law enforcement took center stage in late summer and fall as Americans of all stripes digested the shooting of an unarmed, black teenager by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Among the debates that emerged was the question of how much, if any, surplus military equipment should be in use by police departments around the country. Small town forces, in particular, were singled out for questions about why armored personnel carriers and helicopters would be necessary for what many still think of as Mayberry-style policing.
Leftover military equipment worth billions has been turned over to police agencies that pay nothing except transportation and maintenance. In some cases, though not all, it makes good economic sense to reuse expensive gear, though an interview with Marine General Joseph Dunford in DoDBuzz, an online defense journal, suggested that destroying MRAPs in remote places like Afghanistan, at $10, 000 a throw, is cheaper than transporting them back to the States, at $50, 000 apiece.
The question of free DoD equipment is one Capt. L.G. Owens, chief investigator for the Oxford Police Department, has clearly fielded before. Oxford, a city of about 21, 000 people that straddles Talladega, Claiborne and Calhoun counties, has acquired $2.5 million in military surplus for its force of 50 or so officers.
“We do have a good deal of military equipment, including a couple of Humvees and a Mobile command, ” he told Business Alabama. The department, he says, looks at it not from a monetary standpoint but from a serviceability standpoint — what help can it give to an officer in the field?
Officers use the mobile command center, an RV-type vehicle, as a staging area for anything from standoffs to Friday night football security, Owens says. It carries every kind of radio apparatus needed to talk to any agency in the area. It does not have beds or a water hookup, he notes.
Their Humvees give officers an extra measure of security, Owens says.
“You put your people out there and it’s not combat but it’s almost combat sometimes, to a certain extent. If they’re driving a normal police car through a riot, you’ve seen on the news how people will bust the windows, turn them over, set the cars on fire. You can’t do that with a 15, 000-pound military vehicle.”
Oxford Chief of Police Bill Partridge says the Humvees also proved their worth last winter when ice storms made them the only way to evacuate children from schools.
Partridge doesn’t apologize for keeping the equipment locker full for his officers. “If officers are trying to control a riot, and people are throwing Molotov cocktails and chunks of asphalt at them, how long do you think they’re going to be able to stay out there without body armor?” he says.
The federal agency that runs the surplus equipment program has temporarily halted it in Alabama until the state government can prove it’s adequately tracking the equipment.
Text by Dave Helms