Military equipment given to Long Island police draws criticism

The federal government has provided police on Long Island millions of dollars in military equipment, ranging from Humvees to forklifts, which police say enhances public safety in natural disasters and terrorism incidents but critics argue results in more aggressive police actions. Police officials talk on Aug. 20, 2014, about the role of the equipment. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

The federal government has provided police on Long Island millions of dollars in military equipment, ranging from Humvees to forklifts, which police say enhances public safety in natural disasters and terrorism incidents but critics argue results in more aggressive police actions.

The Nassau Police were recently given three military Humvees and the granddaddy of them all: an MRAP, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, the 14-ton powerhouse built to withstand roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, documents show.

Suffolk Police also have received dozens of pieces of equipment, including heavily armored trucks and generators.

The Department of Defense's Excess Property Program, also known as the 1033 Program, has distributed more than $5.1 billion in equipment to police departments across the country since it was instituted in 1997. In 2013 alone, more than $449 million worth of property was transferred to law enforcement agencies, according to the DOD.

The program has recently come under scrutiny because of the response by police in Ferguson, Missouri -- including use of heavily armored military vehicles -- to protests and rioting that erupted earlier this month after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

President Barack Obama plans a comprehensive review of the federal government's policy of giving surplus military equipment to local police departments, White House officials said last week. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also announced she will hold a Senate hearing next month to examine the 1033 Program.

Nassau Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki said his department has strict protocols about the use of its acquired military equipment, which is assigned to its Emergency Service Unit and Bureau of Special Operations, and is exclusively used for search and rescue, responses to natural disasters, terrorism or when there are shooting situations.

"We're not patrolling the streets in a Humvee," Skrynecki said. "We're very conscious about police response having the potential to aggravate crowds. We certainly don't want to present an image of having military equipment. We're a very service-oriented police department. We don't want to appear to be a threat to citizens."

 

BearCats and Humvees

Nassau Police have also acquired BearCats, which are bullet-resistant trucks outfitted especially for police departments. Nassau bought its first in 2008 for $240,000 using capital funds, police said. Another BearCat was purchased last year for $319,500 with grant funding, police said.

Suffolk Police have received three 5-ton cargo trucks and 14 Humvees in 2013 and 2014, and one heavy-duty tow truck in June through the program, police records show. The department applied for the 1033 Program in November 2012 and was accepted in February 2013. The first items they received were two Humvees from Fort Drum last June, police said.

Deputy Insp. Mark Fisher, of the department's Homeland Security Bureau, said the equipment was used to rescue trapped motorists when the historic floods socked the Town of Islip and other areas of Suffolk earlier this month with nearly 14 inches of rain. The department does not use the equipment during so-called SWAT raids, he said.

The Humvees, Fisher said, "have high ground clearance. They were used to get through the water to get to people. We couldn't send regular police cars."

The NYPD also has gained items through the federal government, including an old Korean War-era tank that was made into an emergency response vehicle for use in barricade and hostage situations, officials said.

The American Civil Liberties Union in June released a report entitled "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," in which the organization said it found that SWAT teams, which were created to deal with shootings and barricade situations, were increasingly being used to raid homes for small amounts of drugs.

"American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight," the report read.

 

Images from Ferguson

Critics decried the images of police holding machine guns atop heavily armored vehicles in Ferguson as actions more appropriate in a war zone than from a local police force on American soil.

"It broke my heart to see unarmed protesters facing police officers wearing SWAT uniforms holding machine guns," said Jim Bueermann, an ex-police chief and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, a nonpartisan research institute. "It sent the wrong message. Most police officers in this country believe in community policing . . . Those were horrific images."

But Bueermann, who once headed the Redlands, California, police department -- about 50 miles east of Los Angeles -- said under some of the circumstances in Ferguson -- when people were throwing rocks and firebombs at police -- the use of the equipment can be appropriate.

Because the military equipment offered to police is free, there can sometimes be a rush by departments to acquire it, he said. His department also got an MRAP after he left as chief, though it cost about $30,000 to outfit it to police specifications, he said. But strict oversight on its use by local governments should be required, he said.

"Thoughtful police chiefs want to be prepared," Bueermann said. "But the problem is once you create a SWAT team, you're going to want to use it, and once you acquire this piece of equipment, you're going to want to use it . . . so what can happen is the incremental normalizing of when this kind of equipment is utilized."

The criticism of the police's use of military equipment in light of the Ferguson situation is unfair, said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD sergeant.

"It's a balancing act," O'Donnell said. "If you have barricaded suspects, a violent felon, it's safer to send in heavy equipment. . . . The reality in Ferguson, at any given time, the police could be in danger; dynamics change quickly. If they had done nothing, then everybody would say, why did the police sit back and let Ferguson be destroyed?"

In some situations, however, police use of military equipment has been credited with saving lives. Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department told the Los Angeles Times that a gunman fired several shots at one of two of the department's BearCat armored vehicles, which members of the SWAT team used to shield them as they approached the gunman. A SWAT officer was struck, but survived, and the shooter was killed by return fire, police said.

"Thank goodness we had that armored vehicle as a shield, because a regular police cruiser would have been Swiss cheese," LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.

After superstorm Sandy in 2012, Nassau police realized they needed more heavy-duty equipment like the MRAP, which can travel through more than 6 feet of water, and began taking advantage of the federal program, Skrynecki said.

 

Lifesaving devices

He said his officers saw the value in the equipment, which contingents of National Guard troops brought to bear, as lifesaving rescue devices.

The MRAP and three Humvees -- two are assigned to the Emergency Service Unit, with one of those attached to water rescue activity and the third assigned to the Bureau of Special Operations -- have each been outfitted for police work, Skrynecki said.

The rocket launchers and mounted machine guns have been removed, Skrynecki said, and the vehicles have been "transformed to a rescue and service mission." The costs to outfit the vehicles to police specifications were "minimal," police said, though they could not immediately provide a dollar amount.

Skrynecki said the equipment could be lifesaving, if for example, terrorists attacked a local shopping center, as they did last September in Kenya, leaving more than 60 people dead.

"If you were shot and bleeding, would you want to wait for the police to be able to get in there, or would you want the heavily armored truck to get there in two minutes and rescue you?"

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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