Police departments weigh in on use of military-type gear and guns

A police officer with military-style gear watches over people protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August.

A police officer with military-style gear watches over people protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August.

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Beginning last Saturday, and then for several nights in a row, the image of Ferguson, Mo., police officers in camouflage pointing high-caliber rifles from armored vehicles at unarmed protesters was inescapable.

Seeing that much military-grade equipment, even in a small St. Louis suburb like Ferguson, has highlighted the debate over whether the arming of the nation’s police forces has gone too far.

Los Angeles Times correspondents checked in on a handful of police departments around the country to see how the debate affects them.



Between May 2010 and March 2014, the Seattle Police Department received a laundry list of equipment from the Defense Department through its controversial 1033 grant program, gear that Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the agency’s spokesman, accurately labeled “very boring.”

The department has posted the list, complete with pictures, on its SPD Blotter website. It includes floatation vests and binoculars, signage and gloves, pistol holders, a radiation detector and rifle sights “used by the approximately 130 officers who have passed the department’s rifle-certification program.”

“We have equipment that we feel is necessary for a city of our size,” Whitcomb told The Times. “The equipment we have serves a police purpose. Our No. 1 priorities are protecting people’s lives and looking after their well-being. Our second most important is looking after possessions and property.

“The gear that our department employees use ... is primarily defensive in nature,” Whitcomb said. “Our equipment is police specific. We don’t have any military weaponry. The weapons we do own are specific to our profession. ... No rockets, no predator drones, no cannons, no tanks.”

The department’s SWAT team does use a BearCat - an armored truck for situations where there may be gunfire, Whitcomb said, but such a vehicle is standard operating procedure for modern police departments.


“It’s used to get our personnel in and out safely, so we can rescue people and evacuate if necessary,” Whitcomb said. “You cannot do that in a sedan. Though we have put some armored plating on the doors in our cars. We also have purchased ballistic shields. It all goes back to the problem of gun violence in our country. ... But ultimately we are a police service. We are not the military.”

On using BearCats, he said: “If you’ve got a potential for gun violence at a school, university, business complex, mall and you don’t have one of these, you’re not providing adequate police services. ... In a post-Columbine era, you are not doing your job if you don’t have one.”

Seattle police vehicles no longer automatically carry shotguns. Instead, shotguns and rifles are assigned to officers trained in their use.

“Being more strategic with our equipment,” Whitcomb said, is “an absolute good thing.”

The department’s tactics have evolved through the years, from the 1999 protests surrounding the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, in which police response was vilified internationally as heavy-handed and what then-Chief Norm Stamper has described as “the worst mistake of my career.”

The Seattle Police Department is currently operating under a federal consent decree designed to ensure constitutional policing in Seattle. The Justice Department began investigating the department in 2011, and reached a settlement with the city in 2012, which led to the federal oversight.

Whitcomb declined to comment on the situation in Ferguson, but he did talk about one measure his police department employs that was sorely lacking during most of the week in the small, troubled Missouri town – transparency.

“We promise to be open and transparent and share information with the public as these things unfold,” Whitcomb said. “So not only are we going to provide the public safety services and respond to these critical incidents, we will explain to you what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

--Maria L. La Ganga

Pima County, Ariz.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department in southern Arizona has been offered free military surplus items from federal officials in the past, Chief Deputy Chris Nanos said Friday.

They’ve taken a few items, such as blankets and warm-weather socks. The blankets have been used to wrap up the bodies of deceased migrants found in the Sonoran Desert, some of which falls in their jurisdiction. The socks are used by volunteers who participate in search-and-rescue missions in the surrounding mountains.

They’ve sent back some items, such as a few standard-issue rifles.

“We found no use for them,” Nanos said. His department is the second-largest law enforcement agency in Arizona, with 1,500 paid personnel and 400 volunteers.

The military-style equipment they do have, such as BearCat armored vehicles, were purchased separately and are rarely used, he said. For instance, he said that while they receive up to 150,000 calls a year for service, they’re SWAT team has responded only about a dozen times.

“The reality is that brute strength is so seldom used and seldom needed,” Nanos said. “What we really need is better communication, the gift of gab, if you will. You need the ability to talk with others. That’s what a good policeman does. That’s what a good cop is. Someone who looks at a problem and finds a way to solve the problem, not just end the problem.”

Nanos said he could understand the willingness of law enforcement agencies to accept free equipment from the government, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Still, he said, “Maybe it’s time to ratchet it back a little bit.”

“As an agency head, I would believe every agency is looking at what they have received ... and have a bit of a review process on that.”

His agency has a review process in place to determine whether they should receive equipment, even when it’s free. Nanos said it was important for local agencies to be skeptical about what they are taking and why they are taking it.

“The review needs to be there,” he said. “A 14-ton armored vehicle? I don’t know what you would do with that. That’s not us. Do we need the type of weapon they are offering? ... It’s really a matter of review and putting common sense into it.”

However, the issue goes beyond what hardware a department may have, Nanos said.

“How we train and who we recruit is even more critical,” he said. “We want them to hit the streets and be well-trained for any adversary, but clearly we want them to be guardians. It’s just that simple.”

Even before Ferguson, Pima County Sheriff’s Department officials debated the militarization of police, Nanos said. It’s especially poignant now.

“Myself, with all my command staff, we are closely watching what is going on in Ferguson,” he said. “In today’s world, Ferguson is just a shame that has to happen to bring this to the forefront. I would wage you that most agency heads in this country are having the same debate — the same conversation I’ve had with my staff or similar debates of balancing the militarization of the departments.”

Nanos, promoted to his current position at the beginning of the year, said he took a step back in January to see what the department could be doing better.

He reviewed their protocols, such as the classroom curriculum for cadets. They’ve made some adjustments, he said.

There is now less of an emphasis on telling the cadets about the dangers they’ll face in the field and instead more of a focus on how to interact with the community.

He said his deputies were trained to be “guardians” rather than “warriors.”

“We want to make sure the mind-set is always right. We expect them to be on top of their game in all areas of police work, and the big one is communication.”

“Our goal is serving the public. It doesn’t say policing the public. It doesn’t say we’re at war with the public. We are public servants. I expect our staff to have the heart for servitude.”

Nanos said how the police department is perceived in the community is also key.

“Sometimes perception is worse than the truth. If we are perceived one way, even if it is not true, you have to do some work on yourself. You have to change that image,” he said.

--Cindy Carcamo

Raleigh, N.C.

The police department in Raleigh has purchased only a small amount of surplus military equipment, but no weapons in the last five years, said police spokesman Jim Sughrue. Among the items purchased are two gun cabinets, four spotting scopes, 30 ammunition cans and a graveyard registration kit.

“We practice community policing,” Sughrue said.

The department emphasizes regular contact with community and civic groups, he said. Its philosophy is to use tactical equipment only in certain specialized situations such as serving drug warrants in cases where suspects are believed to be armed.

The department has a small number of civilian-made armored tactical vehicles, Sughrue said. The vehicles are deployed in situations where members of the public or police force are endangered or “when we are dealing with people who are known to have been involved in violent felonies or are believed to be armed.”

Patrol officers are armed with sidearms, Sughrue said, though some also carry a backup semiautomatic patrol rifle. Officers have no fully automatic or military weapons, he said.

Like many departments, the Raleigh force recently switched from shotguns to semiautomatic rifles after studies found that the rifles are safer to deploy, Sughrue said. The department does not take part in the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, known as the 1033 program, which provides surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Sughrue declined to comment on the use of military tactical equipment and weapons in Ferguson.

--David Zucchino

Nashville, Tenn.

The police department in Nashville has been closely following developments in Ferguson, said Don Aaron, the department’s public affairs manager.

What stands out, he said, is the “lack of communication to the community and, conversely, to the rest of the country” by police officials in Ferguson.

Unlike police involved in the Ferguson unrest, the Nashville force has never used its SWAT team for crowd control, Aaron said. The department generally uses its horse-mounted police officers for that purpose.

Nor has the department deployed either of its two armored vehicles - it calls them rescue vehicles - for crowd control, Aaron said. The vehicles are used to rescue civilians or police officers threatened by gunfire.

“You never say never, but we have not used an armored vehicle in a crowd-control situation,” he said. “It’s just not the type of situation where you would use that type of vehicle.”

Aaron said the department did not rely on military weapons or equipment, with only a relative handful of items provided by the military.

One armored vehicle was provided by the Air Force years ago. A more modern vehicle, a civilian-made model called a BearCat, was provided about 10 years ago through a Department of Homeland Security grant, Aaron said.

The department’s SWAT team, which is issued semiautomatic rifles, is deployed primarily in dangerous situations such as hostage rescue, barricaded suspects or an active shooter, Aaron said. A Special Response Team within the SWAT unit carries semiautomatic rifles to serve outstanding felony arrest warrants, often against people wanted for violent crimes.

The department received eight military OH-58 observation helicopters around 1997, Aaron said. Four were repainted and used for police work, and four have been used for spare parts. The force also has 10 boats it received from the military that Aaron said were crucial in helping rescue people stranded during devastating floods in Nashville in 2010.

In January 2013, the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department began allowing officers who undergo training and pass certification tests to carry privately-owned semiautomatic rifles as backup weapons while on patrol. The weapons are not to be used for routine patrol work, Aaron said.

“Deadly events across the United States over the past few years ... demonstrate the high-powered weapons with which criminals are arming themselves,’’ a department news release said at the time. “It has become increasingly clear that a pistol and a shotgun may not be enough for an officer to stop a threat to innocent civilians.”

The rifles are not intended for crowd control. “Officers are to retrieve their rifles only when it is clear that a tactical advantage over a criminal suspect is warranted,” the release said.

--David Zucchino


Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis had proposed ordering hundreds of semiautomatic M16s under the federal surplus program, but the plan was never put in place, said police department spokesman Mike McCarthy. Boston has not received any surplus military equipment from the Defense Department.

“The sentiment here is that we have a community policing philosophy that we completely buy into, and that means more interaction with the community on a personal level, rather than here’s a show of military force,” McCarthy said.

The department did purchase some rifles through the Department of Homeland Security, but they are given only to SWAT teams, and are utilized only on patrol, he said.

In parades to celebrate the city’s sports teams and in responding to events such as Occupy Boston, “our approach is a soft approach,” McCarthy said. “We don’t utilize officers in military gear or riot gear. We do just the opposite.”

--Alana Semuels

New York City

Alex S. Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and a senior policy advisor to the Police Reform Organizing Project, looked at police response to Occupy protests, and said that it was frequently small and mid-sized departments that often deployed military equipment.

“Boston, New York, Los Angeles, most of the big cities, did not have the militarized response” to Occupy protesters, he said. “It was the medium and small cities that were in some ways worst offenders.”

Denver, for instance, deployed military equipment it received during the 2008 Democratic National Convention to break up Occupy protests; Tampa, Fla., police used a tank to break up similar protests.

Because much of the equipment comes from Homeland Security grants, he said, the equipment is spread over nearly every congressional district, city and state.

“You’ve got towns with 100,000 people that have as much hardware as New York City,” he said.

For the police departments, it makes sense to get the equipment - after all, it’s free, and is good for officer morale. But it serves “almost no considerable law enforcement purpose,” he said.

But surprisingly, big cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia seem to be much less likely to use the military gear, he said. Vitale has written a book about the New York Police Department, “City of Unrest,” but says the NYPD generally uses the equipment only when there’s a legitimate need for it. When the U.N. General Assembly is in session, for instance, a few armored jeeps will be deployed by the U.N. Counter-terrorism officers have assault weapons, but don’t usually parade them around the streets.

Sometimes, though, the department can’t seem to help itself: During a recent demonstration near the Israeli Consulate, the NYPD stationed two officers to keep the peace with AR-15s.

--Alana Semuels

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