Program helps militarize police

MARIETTA – Law enforcement agencies in Washington County seldomly use the Defense Department’s free hand-me-down equipment program.

The Pentagon’s Excess Property Program allows state and federal agencies to acquire excess or decommissioned military equipment.

Called the 1033 Program, it has come under fire by civil rights groups after revelations it was the source for much of the military gear used in Ferguson, Mo., where law enforcement is trying to quell nearly two weeks of unrest following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

Local agencies have a few items through the program and sparingly use them, but officials say they would rather have them than not.

“You never know when you might need to go somewhere else for assistance,” said Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick.

Marietta, Belpre and Caldwell police departments and the Washington, Morgan and Noble County sheriff’s offices are enrolled in the program. Marietta, like Caldwell, has obtained M-16 rifles through the program.

Those rifles are not issued and are kept in locked storage, said McKitrick.

Caldwell Police Chief Paul McKahan does the same. Having access to the guns is a matter of officer safety, he said.

“You can’t do battle with criminals that have you outdone in fire power,” he said.

With a military background, it has been somewhat strange for McKahan to see small town police departments begin using equipment he used in the military. But the issues small town police face are growing, he said.

“It’s kind of weird seeing the government arm these departments with military hardware. But look at the world around us,” he said.

Washington County has acquired several items through the program in the past but has two Humvees provided through the Defense Department. The Humvees are mostly used for marijuana eradication, said Capt. Troy Hawkins.

“It has off-road capabilities. It’s nice to take to something like when we have to transport marijuana out of hard-to-reach areas,” he said.

The vehicles require little monetary upkeep. If a part is needed, it can almost always be gotten free through the 1033 program. The department has had the two Humvees for a year and has invested a couple tanks of gas in them, said Hawkins.

Monroe County used to take part in the program, but stopped because it did not suit its needs, said Sheriff Charles Black Jr.

“The benefits to us are not worth the process. The guns are obsolete and a lot of the vests and clothing are ripped, second hand. It’s not worth the headache of trying to keep in compliance with the government,” said Black.

The condition of available items and responsibility of compliance is one reason Marietta Police has not gotten anything from the program in more than a decade. The guns and helmets acquired at that time are still tracked by the Defense Department and periodically audited, said McKitrick.

Residents agree with departments who want to err on the side of caution when it comes to heavy arms.

“I think it’s good to be prepared. If things get out of hand, you have to have a way to respond,” said Marietta resident Renay Wentz, 39.

Some said they can see the need in bigger communities, but not so much in smaller places like Marietta.

“Maybe in another city, I can see the point. But to me, Marietta is a quiet town. It seems unnecessary,” said Marietta resident Joshua Youngblood, 31.

Marietta resident Peter Mokmane, 24, said military equipment is best reserved for military use.

“There is not an immediate threat of war so I don’t think military equipment is needed. Some people who have these things just use this to create a fearful atmosphere,” said Mokmane.

Mokmane’s reservations echo many of those made about the use of military equipment used by police to subdue crowds in Ferguson. Dressed in military-grade body armor, traveling in armored tanks, and using assault rifles, many have likened the police forces in Ferguson to military units and critics have said the intimidating show of force have increased tensions between police and civilians rather than calming them.