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MISSION CREEP: Feds help militarize police agencies

Residents of Keene, N.H., protested the local police department's purchase of a $285,933 BearCat armored police vehicle with federal money. Local police said the vehicle could be used to patrol the city's annual pumpkin festival. (Courtesy of Lenco)

Residents of Keene, N.H., protested the local police department’s purchase of a $285,933 BearCat armored police vehicle with federal money. Local police said the vehicle could be used to patrol the city’s annual pumpkin festival. (Courtesy of Lenco)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Third in a series

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has spent billions of tax dollars since 2003 outfitting state and local law enforcement agencies – including New Mexico’s – with armored vehicles, powerful weaponry and other cutting-edge technology.

Federal and local authorities contend the high-tech and often highly visible equipment deters crime and protects officers against violent offenders, some of whom are armed with increasingly deadly weapons themselves. But civil liberties groups, members of Congress and some former law enforcement officials wonder if the investment is worth it, and if it is effectively turning local police forces into paramilitary units.

SIMONSON: "The tactics have changed"

SIMONSON: “The tactics have changed”

“There has been a trend of militarization of police agencies across the country, and it’s been stimulated by federal grants to purchase high-level technology and heavy armament that we have never seen before, except in military situations,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union.

“Increasingly, you see APD using SWAT teams with riot gear and full body armor and helmets and assault rifles to perform operations that were traditionally carried out by uniformed policemen,” Simonson said. “The tactics have changed.”

Darren White, who has served as a New Mexico secretary of public safety, Bernalillo County sheriff and chief public safety officer for the city of Albuquerque, told the Journal the Department of Homeland Security has been immensely helpful in equipping state and local law enforcement officers.

WHITE: Says DHS is helpful in equipping agencies

WHITE: Says DHS is helpful in equipping agencies

White said he urged cops to deploy the heavy-duty weaponry and vehicles with restraint, but he also said the equipment saves lives. For example, White said armored personnel carriers, sometimes deployed by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, can help protect officers and members of the public.

“If you have an active shooter situation and you have victims who are trapped in an area, they can use those vehicles to move in and get people out,” White said. “Just because you have a disturbance, it doesn’t mean you should bring out the armored personnel carrier. But if you have an active shooter situation at a school and it moves people out of harm’s way, the community will be grateful.”

Tracking money, gear

It is difficult – if not impossible – to determine exactly how much U.S. Department of Homeland Security money has been used to buy equipment for New Mexico law enforcement agencies over the past decade. DHS officials in Washington referred the Journal to the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for information about the grants.

New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management officials reported receiving $28.6 million in federal Homeland Security grants in 2014. That money was passed along to counties, cities and towns across New Mexico for both law enforcement and emergency management programs. But the state could not provide the Journal with specifics about which jurisdictions received the money – or how it was spent.

The Department of Homeland Security isn’t the only federal department providing communities with such equipment.

The Department of Defense’s military surplus program last year sent the cities of Farmington and Los Lunas mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, from the U.S. military surplus program. The vehicles, which were used in the Iraq War, are valued at more than $600,000 each, but the departments had to pay only the price of shipment – about $3,000 – to acquire them. Their maintenance, which can be substantial, is also the cities’ responsibility.

Farmington Police Cmdr. Cliff Washburn, who oversees the city’s SWAT team, told The Daily Times newspaper in Farmington that the fearsome-looking vehicle was a deterrent in itself and would be deployed at all SWAT team calls in the community.

“It’s foolish to leave an asset at home when you might need it in the field,” Washburn told the Daily Times. “Plus, it’s very intimidating. You roll up in front of somebody’s house with that, and it gets their attention. We’ll take it everywhere we go.”

Military image

Tom Ridge, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Journal he is dismayed by state and local law enforcement’s increasing procurement of military-style equipment, paid for with federal dollars. Ridge said that was not the original mission of the Department of Homeland Security, which was created to combat terrorism and respond to disasters.

“I’m trying to figure out why these local communities need Humvees,” Ridge said. “I think it’s ridiculous. The maintenance on a Humvee and some of this other equipment is daunting. They (police departments) could probably use a couple of more patrolmen rather than another military vehicle.

“I know these local jurisdictions mean well – but be smart about this,” Ridge added. “The last thing you want to create, even if you’re a local law enforcement official, is an appearance that you’re quasi-military. That’s not who we are in this country.”

The Albuquerque Police Department has received about $2.5 million in State Homeland Security Grant Program awards from the federal government since 2009. Among the purchases was a bomb robot, as well as tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment for “a variety of items for tactical teams, scope mounts and range finders, etc.,” said Roger Ebner, director of APD’s emergency management unit. However, Ebner also said this particular grant appears to be slowing. APD received more than $1 million of the grant money in 2010, and by 2013 the grant award had dwindled to $220,000.

“Funding has been decreasing dramatically,” Ebner said.

Wendell Oliver, a former police officer in Arlington, Va., is now a professor of homeland security studies at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Oliver said he’s seen overwhelming displays of law enforcement from both sides of the street.

“I’ve been in situations (as a police officer) where I was thinking, ‘I can’t wait until the SWAT team shows up,’ ” Wendell said. “But I’ve also been a father at a parade with my children and along comes the SWAT team in their tactical jeep and their tactical black clothing and their weapons and they’re playing ‘Bad Boys’ on the stereo. I look at it, and it’s almost embarrassing. It’s too intimidating, and I don’t think it’s a good show of force by the police department.”

Oliver said there needs to be a balance. He said a protest last month of the Albuquerque police shooting of James Boyd, which devolved into unruly crowds and vandalism, could have been worse if it were not for an overwhelming display of police force.

“There is something to say for having that show of force when it’s necessary,” Oliver said. “When you’ve got people throwing rocks and they’re destroying things, you don’t want to show up with a couple of cops on bicycles. It’s not going to quite have the same effect.”

Eye on accountability

One piece of high-tech gadgetry that civil liberties and police oversight groups would like to see Department of Homeland Security disburse grants for is “body-worn” cameras.

These are small video cameras that can be attached to the lapels on officers’ uniforms to record their interactions with the public – and they are eligible for purchase through at least nine different DHS grants. The Albuquerque Police Department purchased body-worn cameras in 2010, but they are not routinely used, according to a recent U.S. Justice Department report on a pattern of police brutality and killings in Albuquerque.

“The use of those body-worn cameras has been shown over and over again to restore accountability in situations where police departments are getting out of control,” Simonson said.

“It’s high-end technology, it’s expensive for police departments, and it seems like exactly the kind of thing that the federal government should be promoting if they’re also going to be promoting this heavy armament and weaponry.”

Gil Kerlikowske, head of Customs and Border Protection, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, said last month that he sees merit in body-worn video cameras for Border Patrol officers. When he was Seattle’s police chief in the early 2000s, the city began placing video cameras in every officer’s car.

“We found that with the video cameras in particular, and the audio, it worked far more to the officers’ advantage when there were complaints that came forward,” Kerlikowske told a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Into the pipeline

Congress continues to pump billions of dollars into the Department of Homeland Security, and the department funnels billions to local law enforcement agencies, but some lawmakers are trying to tighten the spigot.

In December 2012, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., released a report called “Safety at Any Price.” The report assessed $35 billion worth of Homeland Security grants to local law enforcement agencies over a 10-year period. The lawmakers found dozens of dubious examples of high-dollar, high-tech law enforcement equipment purchased with DHS grants.

In Keene, N.H., residents protested – without success – the local police department’s purchase of a $285,933 BearCat armored police vehicle with federal money, according to the report. The picturesque New England town had just one homicide in the two years before the city’s application for the grant. Local police told the Keene newspaper the vehicle could be used to patrol the city’s annual pumpkin festival. Incredulous residents protested with T-shirts that said “Thanks, but no tanks.”

Although the Keene incident was viewed as questionable – even humorous – by the senators, they raised serious questions about Homeland Security spending in America’s cities and towns.

“We cannot make every community around the country invulnerable to terrorist attacks by writing large checks from Washington, D.C.,” the report said.

“Not only is this an unrealistic goal, but it also undermines the very purpose of our efforts. By letting every level of government – federal, state and local – do the things each does best, we can secure our cities and our freedoms.

“Confusing these roles leads to waste, inefficiency and a false sense of security.”

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