It reads like an equipment inventory at a military base: 190 M-16 assault rifles, 15 utility trucks, two Commando armored cars, a mine-resistant vehicle, an armored truck and a Huey helicopter.
But this array of weapons and war vehicles does not belong to an Army battalion or a regiment of Marines; it belongs to 19 police departments in southwestern Connecticut.
A Freedom of Information Act request by Hearst Connecticut Media Group revealed that more than half of the 35 police departments in the region have received free surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense since 2006 through the Law Enforcement Support Office.
The office has come under scrutiny here and across the country after the militarized police response to civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., prompted President Obama to order a review of all Pentagon programs that provide military gear to local police departments.
If it comes as news that Stratford police have a $923,000 helicopter, or that Trumbull police have a $658,000 anti-mine truck, it's a good thing, several police chiefs agreed, because it means there hasn't been much need to use them.
Stamford's $150,000 Commando V150 armored car was deployed Wednesday during the intense manhunt downtown for the suspect in a murder earlier in the day, but that was a rare occurrence; the tank-like vehicle is much more likely to have been seen in a town parade.
Police Chief Jon Fontneau said the city's armored personnel carrier usually only comes out for executing high-profile search warrants.
"We take it out very rarely," said. "It's broken down more than it's working."
Fontneau said he is working to procure a more reliable $300,000 Bearcat, but not through the DoD program.
If such equipment is used mainly for show, asks David Cohen, a Stamford lawyer and the vice president of the Fairfield County chapter of the ACLU, "Why do we have it rolling down our streets?"
Chiefs answer that the surplus equipment is useful during natural disasters and at active crime scenes, especially when a gunman is at large.
"There is a lot of military equipment that has useful law enforcement application," said Danbury Police Chief Al Baker, whose department received 40 M-16 rifles in 2006 and 2007 from the LESO program. "There is a big difference in training and in the rules of engagement between the military and law enforcement, and I don't think we are in danger of crossing the line."
But the line between military and police seemed blurry in images from downtown Ferguson earlier this month after police fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. Police responded to looting and street protests with tear gas, armored vehicles and assault rifles pointed at protesters.
"America gets upset when they see local police with militaristic-type gear and weapons," said Brookfield Police Chief Robin Montgomery, a former special agent with the FBI who earned two Purple Hearts as a Marine in Vietnam. "If the threat does not rise to the militaristic level, you need to be as low-key as possible."Read Full Article
Being low-key becomes difficult when military equipment is deployed on Main Street, said David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU in Hartford.
"We have found there is an overreliance on this equipment where departments have used SWAT teams and armored vehicles to deliver warrants," McGuire said. "That is inappropriate."
The ACLU is lobbying the state legislature for a law requiring a local public hearing before a police department could apply for military equipment. The law would also require police to log each instance where the military equipment was used so that its use could be monitored.
"We have been advocating for this since March 2013," McGuire said. "Until Ferguson happened, most people didn't know that their police department had a grenade launcher or an armored vehicle."
A policy under scrutiny
Vehicles and weapons the Pentagon gives to local police departments are a small part of the $5 billion in equipment distributed nationwide since 1990, when Congress authorized the program to help local law enforcement fight the war on drugs.
Even before the militarized police deployments in Ferguson put the practice under White House scrutiny, the LESO program was drawing fire for giving small departments equipment they would never use.
A 2013 Associated Press investigation found little oversight in the program. For example, three boats, along with rescue rafts, scuba gear and life preservers, went to a rural Georgia town where the only body of water was a creek barely ankle-deep.
Indeed, as much as 95 percent of the Pentagon equipment provided through LESO is non-weapon items, said Michelle McCaskill, spokeswoman for the federal Defense Logistics Agency.
To cite a local example, the Ansonia police department received a $4,300 cross-trainer and a $1,500 exercise bike from LESO in 2012, along with five pairs of $8 sweatpants.
But since the breakdown of community in Ferguson forced Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to declare a state of emergency and call in the National Guard, the focus has been on larger, more expensive and more lethal items.
"Police may well need military-grade equipment," said Quinnipiac University sociology professor Don Sawyer. "But in Ferguson, when police were pointing M-16s at the crowds, the line was crossed. We have to evaluate this equipment to see who needs it."
Area police chiefs noted that except for M-14 rifles that are now out of date and a couple of armored vehicles in such disrepair that they will probably never be put to use, most LESO equipment helps them do their jobs better.
"It is good for law enforcement to use surplus that would otherwise be discarded," said Ridgefield Chief John Roche, who received two Humvee utility trucks from the program in 2011 and 2012. "We were asked to transport doctors and nurses to Danbury Hospital during a snowstorm and without them we would not have been able to do it."
Ansonia Chief Kevin Hale agreed. In addition to the exercise equipment, his department received a utility truck in 2012 that was the only vehicle on the road at some points during blizzard of 2013.
"It's not mounted with a 50-caliber machine gun," said Hale. "It's a good program for communities which otherwise would not be able to afford this equipment."
In police departments such as Greenwich, which do not have any military-issued equipment, the police chief has not ruled out participating in the future.
"Law enforcement has changed, and the level of force needed by law enforcement has increased," Chief James Heavey said. "The weapons of criminals have changed."
Moreover, Heavey and other chiefs said, their departments benefit when neighboring forces receive surplus military equipment.
An example is Eagle-1, a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter obtained by the Stratford Police Department in 2010.
"There's no weapons on it," Danbury's Baker said. "It's used for rescue and observation. That helicopter is available for everyone."
Jonathan Lucas, John Burgeson and Justin Pottle contributed to this report.