At 10:38 a.m. on Oct. 1, the first 911 call came into the Douglas County, Oregon, emergency communications center: Shots had been fired at Umpqua Community College.
Within minutes, officers from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, the Oregon State Police and the local police were on the scene, some of them wearing military-issue camouflage Kevlar helmets and other apparel.
Even as these officers were arriving at the scene of what turned out to be a massacre, a memo was being transmitted from the Justice Department that will prohibit the very equipment and uniforms they were using.
Since 1997, the federal government has made surplus military equipment available to local law enforcement agencies. The 1033 Program has enabled law enforcement agencies to use equipment that would otherwise be scrapped: camouflage fatigues and firearms, as well as armored vehicles and even helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
Needless to say, most of this equipment would not be affordable to local law enforcement if the full cost had to be borne by hard-pressed taxpayers. Nevertheless, it has played a critical role in protecting law-abiding citizens and maintaining the peace.
Surplus military gear also got a thorough workout during the 1,000-year flood that recently devastated South Carolina.
Sheriff Kenney Boone of South Carolina's Florence County reported on Facebook that military-surplus armored vehicles, Humvees and helicopters played "a vital role in our lifesaving efforts." "We truly couldn't have done all we have without this equipment," Boone said, posting photos of the equipment in action. Why does the Justice Department want to restrict the program? It's all about appearances.
Following the riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore this year, President Obama expressed the view that "militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there's an occupying force." The new rules restrict the use of camouflage apparel, for instance, because, according to the memo, "camouflage-patterned uniforms are another example of equipment that is closely associated with the military." Armored vehicles that travel on wheels pass muster with the new restrictions, but not those that travel, as tanks do, on tracks. "Tracked" armored vehicles will be prohibited because "their appearance may undermine community trust when used in support of civilian law enforcement activities." Yet local law enforcement agencies in areas with a lot of snow have found the tracked vehicles much more useful in getting through storms, and they are invaluable for the desert communities of the Southwest and mountainous regions.
Taken to their core, the rules restrict valuable crime-fighting tools because of the way they look. The memo reflects a haphazard, poorly thought-out approach that fails to recognize the infinite range of problems faced by local agencies operating in a diverse array of terrains and climates.
Surely our officers deserve better. We all do. The flood-bound residents of Florence County did not see the desert-camouflage armored personnel carriers of their local sheriff's department as signs of "an occupying force." Nor did the petrified students at Umpqua Community College when their rescuers arrived in camouflage helmets and combat gear.
Surplus military apparel and equipment that can be put to good use helping protect Americans should not be sent to the scrap yard simply because of the way it looks. The president should withdraw the Justice Department memo, and the highly successful 1033 Program should be continued - appearances notwithstanding.
The writer is chief executive and executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association.