Images of tear gas canisters exploding on streets in a suburb of St. Louis and police officers attired as if in war zone with drawn weapons is a nightly phenomena Americans are not used to seeing.
The death of an unarmed black 18-year-old shot six times by a white cop has ignited a national discussion over racial tensions and also sparked a discussion about the increasing militarization of municipal police forces.
The Defense Department has provided about 500 aircraft, 830 armored vehicles and 93,000 military rifles to city and county law enforcement authorities across the U.S. since 2006, according to an article reported by the National Journal.
However, at least in Northeast Florida, military surplus equipment is usually outdated, well-worn and fills multiple purposes, according to Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford.
Through the years, Jacksonville police have obtained an airplane, two helicopters, an armored personnel carrier and two sets of night vision goggles through a U.S. Department of Defense military surplus program.
Clay County sheriff’s spokeswoman Mary Justino said its Sheriff’s Office purchased the majority of its tactical equipment — at least in recent years — through federal grant programs and not military surplus.
Jacksonville, Clay and St. Johns counties sheriffs’ offices each have a BearCat, an military-styled armored vehicle used to shield officers and deputies from gunfire as they approach criminals usually as they are barricaded behind locked doors.
The Times-Union placed a public records request Tuesday for all equipment bought by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office through federal grant programs or from money obtained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
BearCats aren’t military equipment but are designed especially for city and county police departments. Justino said Clay couldn’t have afforded the $300,000 BearCat if the county hadn’t used forfeiture money and federal grants.
Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said the first time deputies made use of the BearCat was to evacuate citizens in a dangerous situation. He said a man repeatedly fired a high-powered rifle from his property onto others’.
“If a bullet had hit the side of the BearCat, those citizens would have still been safe,” he said.
Mulligan said law enforcement is inherently paramilitary as deputies and officers wear uniforms, follow a chain of command and utilize tactics to eliminate dangerous situations. Still, Mulligan said police departments and sheriff’s offices are not plotting to form armies.
He said the large armored vehicles serve a valid law-enforcement purpose.
“Why should we risk a deputy sheriff’s life when we can take a vehicle with thicker metal,” he said.
As far as surplus military equipment goes, Mulligan said St. Johns has a helicopter and a few motorcycles that can be easily used in wooded areas.
“The helicopter doesn’t have any guns on it,” he said. “It doesn’t have any rocket launchers on it. It’s a helicopter.”
Mulligan said the Sheriff’s Office uses the helicopter to find missing children or other in other types of searches.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office has two Humvees and some grenade launchers that are used to shoot smoke during SWAT situations, Justino said. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have actual grenades that could be launched. The launchers were obtained by a previous sheriff, Justino said.
The Humvees are used only for off-road rescue, she said.
Justino said she believes local law enforcement have similar vehicles and weapons as those seen in pictures and videos in Ferguson, Mo.
“People here locally haven’t had cause to be concerned because when we have used our equipment we use it appropriately,” she said.
The two helicopters Jacksonville has — one of which isn’t operational — were constructed in the 1970s, as was the airplane. The armored personal carrier was built in 1982 and the Sheriff’s Office considers the night vision goggles obsolete as it has bought better ones since, Rutherford said.
The Sheriff’s Office has been selective in choosing what equipment to take as maintenance costs for the used equipment can outweigh the potential benefit to law enforcement goals.
“What we receive from them [the federal government] is things we really needed and would be very costly to our local tax payers,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford said the airplane allows officers to extradite hardened criminals from anywhere across the country at a moment’s notice. He said it’s more cost-efficient to use the plane than to fly commercially, plus it’s safer for the flying public, the criminal and law enforcement.
He said the helicopters the Sheriff’s Office owns have allowed for a change in tactics during high-speed chases. Before local law enforcement had helicopters, police chased suspects until they crashed, Rutherford said.
Now, once the aircraft has locked onto a suspect vehicle, police pull back and flood the area with police dogs. They allow the suspect to flee and then be tracked, Rutherford said.
Both are in the best interest of the public, he said.
The armored vehicle often used by SWAT teams, fills the dual purpose of being used during hurricane relief efforts to rescue potential victims from flood waters, according to the sheriff.
Rutherford sees the military surplus program as a way to cheaply outfit local police with tools that will allow them to do their job of protecting the public. The helicopters cost just $500 to buy through this program. But it took several thousands of dollars to get in a condition to be airworthy.
“But it’s a lot cheaper than to go out and buy it [new]” Rutherford said.
Derek Gilliam: (904) 359-4619