Michigan police, civil rights groups at odds over military equipment for cops

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — County sheriff departments eager to acquire more aircraft, observation helicopters, camouflage and other military equipment can look forward to more opportunity to acquire them after a federal ban on some surplus was lifted.

“President Trump’s actions enable law enforcement to provide tools and equipment that comes through the federal government at little to no cost that we cannot afford on a local basis,” said Tim Parker, the sheriff of Hillsdale County.

While this reverses the federal government’s position and allows police more access to such equipment, the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights says it is a step away from improving police-community relations.

“For the Trump administration to lift the ban really sends the wrong message to law enforcement that they more or less have a free hand to engage militarized tactics in civilian populations,” said Abayomi Azikiwe, a coalition board member.

The new plan announced Aug. 28 rolls back a 2015 Obama administration restriction issued in response to criticism over police use of military-style gear by police during the Ferguson, Missouri, riots more than three years ago.

The new order eases restrictions on giving police equipment like tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and other military-grade supplies.

Police say the discussion about using military equipment has focused on need rather than the advantages it could bring in special cases, and they say it needs a shift in perspective.

“The whole issue, we think from a law enforcement’s perspective, has been framed incorrectly,” said Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. “Yes, it’s surplus equipment the military has that they’re giving to police departments. But anyone can buy this stuff on the market.”

And most of the equipment isn’t used the same way it was by the military.

Police use bayonets as cutting tools in medical kits and for ceremonial purposes, Stevenson said. Grenade launchers are used to disperse unruly crowds with tear gas. And a lot of what is acquired is cold- and warm-weather clothing, at a time, when “police department budgets were decimated,” Stevenson said.

“Most of this stuff won’t ever be used, but it’s an insurance policy,” he said.

In September 2012, the West Bloomfield Police Department used military armored vehicles and robots in a firefight with a barricaded gunman.

“An officer was killed by a barricaded gunman, who was shooting an automatic weapon, striking neighbors homes,” said Mike Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff.

Armored vehicles and robots assisted in the safe evacuation of neighbors during the firefight.

“The fact of the matter is, these are life-saving equipment. Now we hope we never have to use them, but in our business, that’s not a strategy. Preparation is,” Bouchard said.

In 1997, Congress authorized the Department of Defense to repurpose tax-funded military equipment for police to use at no charge.

“That has already been paid for once. So the question is, ‘do you want to have the taxpayer pay for it twice, or repurpose it and use it in the domestic market?’” said the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, Blaine Koops.

Bouchard said Oakland County spent $350,000 on a new armored vehicle after losing its vehicle donated by the military after Obama’s executive order in January 2016,.

Hillsdale County may not be getting armored vehicles anytime soon, but Parker, the sheriff, said it’s good the opportunity is available.

“It is an extreme asset to local communities to have these tools are available,” he said.

In Marquette County,  with fewer than 70,000 people, some police chiefs do not see the need for military equipment.

“We don’t take advantage of that program too much,” Marquette County Sheriff Gregory Zyburt said. “I think the department received some rifles a while back, but not a lot since. There aren’t a lot of situations up here where that kind of equipment is needed.”

The Federal Defense Logistics Agency reports that Michigan has received more than $43 million of military surplus since 2006. That includes equipment as diverse as vehicles that resist mines, helicopters, bandage kits and flashlights.

An online database, run by Caspio, a software company, lists all surplus donated to law enforcement in Michigan by county. Information about the name, value and quantity of the supplies that was provided is available.

Even with lifting the ban, Koops of the Sheriffs’ Association doesn’t anticipate the equipment getting any more use than before.

“As far as the ban and the release of the ban, it’s really not going to change a lot of our procedures and processing. It’s special use, and that’s what it’s for. It’s for situations that the public may not see,” he said.