Last week, President Obama ordered a review of a Pentagon program that supplies surplus military equipment at greatly reduced rates to local law enforcement agencies around the country.
The president asked for the evaluation of the Defense Logistics Services Agency program after a public outcry against police tactics during protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The federal program has provided $4.3 billion worth of armored trucks, “assault” rifles, and other military equipment since 1997 has become scrutinized.
But some law enforcement agencies insist they need such equipment in extreme circumstances against heavily-armed criminals. Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster said he still has memories of a 2003 standoff outside the town of Abbeville, when a family protesting a road construction project killed a state constable, shot an Abbeville County deputy, and held officers at bay for 14 hours as they unsuccessfully tried to rescue the mortally wounded deputy.
“They had to improvise to get the officer out that had been shot and wounded, because nobody in that area had anything that could withstand the onslaught they were facing,” Foster said.
Sheriff Foster said his department acquired a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (M-RAP) vehicle two years ago, after a request for an armored Humvee was turned down. Foster said the truck has not been needed yet and would only be used in serious circumstances, such as a firefight or an emergency evacuation at the nearby V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.
But some lawmakers are questioning if the military-grade equipment may be overkill for small departments. South Carolina’s Third District Congressman Jeff Duncan, a Republican whose district includes Abbeville County, said last week he regretted voting for the program.
“Our police should be able to protect themselves as well as us, the average citizen, in doing their jobs,” Duncan wrote. “It is one thing to have protection, though, and completely another to have the kind of overkill that a (sic) M-RAP provides. We should question our local officials – our sheriffs, our chiefs of police and our city, county and state officials, about their desire for, need for and acquisition of this surplus military equipment.”
The congressman has since turned down requests for interviews to elaborate on his position.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the Columbia Rotary Club last week that his department also began looking into some heavily-armored vehicles after the 2003 Abbeville standoff. He said the vehicles can be a perk even if never used because criminals still know the department has one.
“The number one requested piece of equipment that people want to see is our tank and our M-RAP,” Lott said, according to WIS-TV. “They want to see this stuff. We show it, we take it out. We want people to see it. Why? For one we want the bad guys to know that we got it. Maybe that will scare them off.”
But he criticized police tactics in Ferguson, saying it appeared officers there were abusing the equipment to intimidate peaceful protestors.
Foster also admitted officers could abuse the program, but he believes most law enforcement agencies in South Carolina are using the equipment properly.
“Most agencies have this equipment not for an offensive purpose,” he said. “It is solely for a defensive or a protective purpose.”