Last year, Randy Balko, a blogger for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, wrote a book called Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, describing the incidents which have happened across the country where police have acted more like armed forces than forces sworn to protect and serve.
Within a year, the topic would sweep the country.
This past summer during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue of police department militarization became nationwide.
When did police departments start looking more like armies, and why?
An NBC4 investigation of police agencies throughout Ohio shows surprising facts.
The Ohio Department of Public Safety keeps logs on which police departments have been given what equipment.
As it turns out, Allen County, which has 105,000 residents, and the county seat of Lima, with 38,000 residents, have the most.
“I believe our agency has a total of 16 of them right now,” said Sgt. Dave Gillispie, of Lima Police Department, holding a Vietnam-era M-16, which can be fully automatic.
Allen County has another 13 M-16s, and Gillispie defends their use.
“I spent quite a few years in our narcotics division, and it would not be unlikely to find numerous high-caliber weapons being of the AK-47 variety — those types of rifles. We have to prepare ourselves for anything that the common citizen can purchase,” Gillispie said.
He said the guns have been used when officers were attacked by dogs. Depending on the breed and aggression, one bullet won’t bring the dog down. A burst of bullets from an M-16 will.
“Dogs unfortunately. Anytime you’re in close proximity with a dog, ones that are very aggressive. I’ve found that shooting once or twice sometimes isn’t an option,” he said.
There are other tools as well.
Lima police has four bomb robots and Allen County has even more.
The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
For example, the bomb robots are patched and pieced together to get one that works correctly.
In the store room of military-acquired equipment, there are tools that are outdated and don’t even work, and they are included in the arsenal.
“If we absolutely had to have it, we would use it. We do have four of these units which are 1970s-era vintage night goggles,” Gillispie said.
There’s one big problem though.
“There are some issues with these that the older models caused a significant hazard of electrical shock,” he said.
There are also many items, most in fact, may have come from the military, but are not weapons at all.
For example, Allen County received eight pocket watches and in October 2013, received more than $1,000 worth of toys and games.
NBC4 found that overvalued and broken gear appears to be common.
Hocking County received the most expensive military-supplied item in the state.
It is a Humvee valued at $5 million, and the vehicle doesn’t start.
“I had no clue that the price was so expensive when we got it transferred to us,” said Capt. Jerrod Alford of the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office.
At one time, this truck could knock out radio transmissions and take over airwaves, but not anymore.
Once operational, the sheriff’s office will use it as a decontamination unit when shutting down Hocking County’s methamphetamine labs.
“There’s nothing in here that I see that’s worth millions of dollars,” Alford said.
Hocking County does have something that is worth nearly $750,000 — and many Central Ohio police agencies, even The Ohio State University, have one.
It’s called an MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected.
It weighs 52,000 pounds — nearly as much as a loaded semi. And it’s brand new.
Do local police and sheriff offices really need these kinds of tools?
Thad Alexander is a retired Columbus police officer and Vietnam veteran, who used to work on the Street Crime Attack Team.
He has been critical of the direction police departments have been taking when it comes to the equipment that was meant for the military.
He and others said they believe a police force equipped like an army creates as much tension and possible problems as it can solve.
“Whenever you start bringing in the type of military equipment, the people get intimidated by it and that causes them to react to certain type of situations that are not needed,” Alexander said. “The officers are the victims. A lot of people don’t understand that a lot of times the officers are the victims so the officers have to be able to protect themselves and that equipment is sometimes definitely needed for their protection — but sometimes overreaction can cause the situation to inflame the citizenry.”
The practice has been going on for nearly two decades, and police staunchly defend it for both safety and budgetary reasons.
They can have things they couldn’t otherwise afford.
Much of the exercise equipment in Lima’s gym came from the military.
There are hazmat suits and first aid kits that protect both officers and citizens.
“Honestly I believe that police agencies are increasing to the threats that they’re seeing out there,” said Gillispie. “With the large caliber weapons that are readily available out there to the public, we have to be, as a supervisor it’s my responsibility to make sure my officers have the protection they need in order to do their job, which we are custodians of the constitution and the people’s rights.”
“I want the most protection for myself and my family does to make sure I make it back and if someone’s shooting at me, I would love to be in that thing to make sure I didn’t get shot,” said Alford.
Every year, more than $1 billion in military equipment is given to local police departments and sheriff’s offices.