Area police officials lukewarm about surplus military gear programs flagged for review by president

Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — President Barack Obama last week ordered a review of programs that put surplus military gear into the hands of local police in the wake of outcry about heavily armed Ferguson, Missouri, police officers in armored trucks facing off with protesters.

If the review leads to scrapping or curtailing such programs, police officials in Hampshire County largely won’t be broken-hearted. Most of them think military surplus programs give away gear they wouldn’t want anyway.

“The simple fact is, the munitions they offer, we don’t need,” said Amherst Police Chief Scott P. Livingstone, referring to the military surplus give-away known as the 1033 program.

“I never liked the program. I looked at it years ago, but I just never used it,” said Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz.

He said when it comes to equipment for a modern-day police force, it is important that the gear be consistent from officer to officer and not haphazard or random, which is what happens when departments rely too much on what’s available through surplus programs.

“It didn’t suit our needs and I was fortunate enough to have a city that responded to our budget requests as we modernized our department,” Sienkiewicz said.

Easthampton Police Chief Bruce McMahon was more blunt in his assessment of the program. “Quite frankly, the stuff was junk,” he said. “The military doesn’t want it anymore.”

Established in 1997 under the National Defense Authorization Act, the 1033 program is run by the Defense Logistics Agency to give away surplus Department of Defense property to police departments around the country.

According to Joseph Kelly, point person for the 1033 program in Massachusetts, there is no central record-keeping for equipment, gear and weapons distributed by the program, so he could not quantify what Hampshire County departments have received over the years.

The Obama-ordered review, which came after police response to the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, will also look at whether there is enough oversight of where surplus material goes and whether the departments that receive it are trained properly in its use, according to the New York Times.

Kelly said that while the weapons part of the program grabbed attention in the wake of the Ferguson protests, the 1033 program provides other equipment police forces find valuable, including electrical generators, clothing, boots, cold-weather gear, exercise equipment and heavy machinery like forklifts.

“It’s a pretty wide scope,” Kelly said. “It’s not just weapons.”

Cummington, for example, acquired a Humvee for use in remote parts of town that are difficult for officers to reach.

Cummington Police Chief Dennis Forgea said the Humvee has helped officers get to off-road and unpaved areas of Cummington and surrounding towns, especially in bad weather.

“You hate to take a $45,000 cruiser up in the woods,” Forgea said.

In addition, he said his department has used the program to acquire items it couldn’t otherwise afford, including computers and golf carts to patrol events like the Cummington Fair.

While the vehicles and other equipment are free, receiving departments must get them running and maintain them, which can be costly.

Forgea said the four electric golf carts obtained through the program each needed six $80 batteries. And the department actually received three Humvees, using two for parts to keep the third running.

The working Humvee is a 1986 model with an odometer that reads about 41,000 miles, Forgea said, but he can’t vouch for how accurate that is. “By all accounts, it’s an antique,” he said.

Building up

Without relying on the free 1033 program, local chiefs use their annual budgets or capital requests to outfit their departments.

Sienkiewicz, for example, said he makes regular capital budget requests to the city in order to methodically build up and maintain his departments’ gear. “You have to do the best you can with a limited budget, but you also have to keep up with the best technology and equipment for your people,” he said.

For some small towns, acquiring surplus M14s “might be cool for them,” Sienkiewicz noted. “That’s not how I run my department,” he said. “I want consistent modern equipment that’s functional, not a mish-mash of different guns. You have to have the right armory of equipment.”

Using that approach, Northampton has stocked its cruisers with semi-automatic rifles, launchers that shoot foam rounds, tactical body armor vests and other equipment used for crowd control.

Northampton Police Capt. Jody Kasper and Sgt. Victor Caputo recently unpacked a police cruiser to show the equipment the city has purchased for use by officers.

Caputo said the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that replaced the shotguns once stored in cruisers is a more modern and accurate weapon, with a holographic gun sight and lower recoil than a shotgun.

He noted that officers carry a 40-millilimeter launcher that fires foam baton rounds, similar in size and texture to a racquetball. “It’s a lot less lethal than any kind of bullet that’s going to come flying out,” said Caputo. “All this equipment, basically, saves lives. That’s what it’s designed for.”

Nature of response

Meanwhile, Livingstone said since the protests and police response in Ferguson started, discussions have been taking place among law enforcement professionals about how much response is warranted and when.

“All the chiefs are discussing tactics,” he said. “The discussion is not going to end any time soon,” Livingstone said.

From his perspective, when it comes to the events that unfolded in Ferguson, “mistakes have probably been made,” said Livingstone — and it’s right that they be examined. “We’ll see how this plays out,” he said.

Sienkiewicz and Kasper said they, too, believe it is essential consider when and under what circumstances to bring out critical incident response gear. “How would you feel if we were in full riot gear right now?” Kasper said. “People feel intimidated by the presence of those things.”

On the other hand, she said, there are times when such equipment is necessary.

“I think people wish we lived in a world where some of that equipment wasn’t necessary, but we don’t,” said Kasper. “Our jobs are inherently dangerous. People see one side of the city and we see the other.”