As recent violent protests have unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., a national debate has been sparked regarding the use of heavily-armed law enforcement personnel outfitted with surplus military equipment.
While the use of armored vehicles, automatic weapons, flash-bang grenades and other hardware has been previously criticized, including a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on June 1 titled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson has brought such issues to the forefront of national discussions, as heavily-armed members of the Ferguson Police Department have confronted protestors reacting to the shooting.
Some lawmakers have responded by insisting the Department of Defense (DOD) immediately restrict or cease the transfer of surplus equipment to municipal law enforcement agencies, including support for a bill proposed by US Representative Hank Johnson (D, Ga.) aiming to end the transfer of surplus armored vehicles, large-caliber or specialized automatic weapons, flash-bang grenades and other such equipment.
Lewis County itself already has armored vehicles acquired through DOD's Excess Property Program, such as a V-150 amphibious transport, and a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. But Sheriff Steve Mansfield says these vehicles, though armored and originating from the military, have been central in protecting and serving area residents, adding he feels many lawmakers are overreacting to sensational media coverage of events in Ferguson.
"This is a knee-jerk reaction," said Mansfield. "If they're jumping on a bandwagon just so they can get some political votes, then shame on them."
Mansfield said the use of surplus equipment, and not its military origin, should be examined before reaching the conclusion that surplus programs should be eliminated.
"It's an armored vehicle, but it's just like everything else," he said. "How you use it and how it is perceived by the public is what matters."
Mansfield said, during armed standoffs when a subject has barricaded themselves against the entry of law enforcement, armored vehicles have allowed deputies to approach safely without fear of ambush or being overpowered. He said armored vehicles are also used during the execution of search warrants when hazardous substances or potentially-armed suspects may be involved, as well as when responding to the discovery of explosives.
He additionally recounted a specific incident during the 2007 flood of the Chehalis River when roads leading to the Doty and Dryad communities were cut off. He said a pair of deputies were able to be stationed in the area because the V-150 could traverse the flooded roadways and, during the number of days the deputies were on site, they were able to assist with rescues as well as respond to burglaries they could not have otherwise.
"These vehicles have been and will continue to be instrumental," said Mansfield, adding it is not the intent of his office to employ them in day-to-day patrols, but only as they are needed. "It's not the vehicle, it's how it's used."
When asked to respond to Mansfield's statements, Doug Honig, a spokesperson for ACLU of Washington, said it is his organization's stance that how military equipment is used does matter, but some common uses go above and beyond what could be termed "emergency situations."
"There's a concern that in some major police departments around the country that it [military equipment] becomes a default for serving search warrants searching for drugs rather than looking at an individual situation," he said, adding some conflicts escalate only after heavily-armed officers respond, eliciting reactions they may not have otherwise. "That's definitely something that needs to be taken into account."
He also said it is important to examine the attitude of a law enforcement agency when considering the military equipment they have access to, stating some officers are encouraged to develop the mentality of an aggressor rather than a protector.
"Too many agencies have been trained to see themselves as warriors rather than as guardians of public safety," he said. "The warrior mentality tends to foster an us-versus-them attitude against those being policed."
Honig added the ACLU does support Johnson's proposed bill, which Johnson spokesperson Andy Phelan clarified was not drafted in response to Ferguson but had been in the works since the beginning of the year, adding recent events have merely highlighted the need for the bill.
"He [Johnson] understands that, in some cases and some jurisdictions, these things make sense," said Phelan of the use of combat-grade equipment. "For the Fergusons of the world, it doesn't make any sense for them to have this huge piece of machinery."
Johnson's bill is expected to be officially submitted to the House of Representatives when Congress returns from recess next month, and a copy fo the bill can be ready here.