Local police, ACLU react to renewed access to military gear

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The reinstatement of a federal military surplus program is being met with mixed reaction.

On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order reversing a 2015 order by President Obama which banned the distribution of federal military equipment including firearms and armored vehicles to local police departments.

“I think it’s a good thing to have tools available that can assist us in protecting ourselves and the community, at reasonable prices,” said Capt. Leon Crone of the Lower Allen Township Police Department.

Crone said his department has previously benefited from the program, obtaining items including boots, gas masks and firearms.

“In our case, we had gotten a few Ruger Mini 14 rifles that were no longer being used by the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. “We also got some magazines for our AR rifles which, at the time, were extremely difficult to obtain.”

Crone says mass shootings and riot situations throughout the years led to an awareness that his officers would be unprepared if something similar were to ever take place in their community.

Opponents of the program say the timing is off.

“We continue to live in a moment in which there is tension between communities and the police,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The last thing we need right now is to give police equipment that makes them look like an occupying army.”

Obama’s ban on the military gear stemmed from the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and 2015. Rioters protesting the killing of an unarmed black man by a white officer were met by what some considered a militarized police force. The U. S. Department of Justice later concluded that Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in an act of self-defense. Riots erupted in reaction to both the failure to indict Wilson and the one-year anniversary of Brown’s shooting.

While police departments aim to benefit from the availability of military surplus, which provides added protection at a savings, Hoover says history has shown that if police are allowed to obtain the gear, they are more prone to using it.

“This is equipment that was intended for the battlefield, not for our neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re talking grenade launchers, high-caliber assault weapons, and armored vehicles.”

Crone says despite the ban, police have still been able to obtain non-military surplus to benefit their communities. Items like paper plates and utensils are an example of something Lower Allen has purchased inexpensively that may someday be used to assist disaster victims. Regarding the military gear that will once again become available, Crone agrees that there is a “balancing act” that needs to be achieved when taking advantage of the surplus.

“There is always a tactical option for every situation,” he said. “An MRAP, a mine resistant vehicle, is probably not the best tool for the job for routine patrol, but if you have a hostage rescue scenario, when you have officers or civilians that are down and under sustained gunfire, that is the tool.”

Upon word of Trump’s executive order, Crone says there was not anything in particular that his department was seeking from military surplus. However, he says under certain circumstances, an armored vehicle could benefit the county as a whole.

“What I would like to see is some kind of regional asset,” he said. “There are lots of small police departments around the area. They don’t all need an MRAP, but it would make sense to have one fairly close at hand.”

 

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