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Police or soldiers? Agencies locally and across Virginia have weapons of war

Police or soldiers? Agencies locally and across Virginia have weapons of war

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Armored personnel carriers with gun ports, compact submachine guns with 30-round magazines, precision battlefield sniper rifles, and military-grade assault-style rifles and carbines have become standard gear in the arsenals of Richmond-area police departments.

Across other parts of Virginia, law enforcement agencies in 105 localities — including 10 in central Virginia — have received as military surplus more than 2,800 tactical firearms, vehicles and other instruments of war without cost from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The weaponry has become fodder for a growing debate on whether U.S. law enforcement is becoming increasingly militarized in its armaments and tactics. The issue has gained more attention nationally this month because of the initial police response to violence and looting in Ferguson, Mo., which has seen unrest sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old.

DATABASE: Richmond-area military-grade weapons

DATABASE: Military surplus gear in Virginia -- 2014

In addressing the situation in Ferguson, President Barack Obama last week called for a sharp separation between the nation’s armed forces and police. He also urged a re-examination of federal programs that have equipped local law enforcement agencies with surplus U.S. military gear.

“Just looking at it, I would say it’s a bit frightening,” John W. Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, said of what he describes as the emerging American police state. “I don’t know what the reason for it is. Crime is at a 40-year low, murder rates are drastically down.

“I live in Charlottesville and the police tell me there’s no crime, but they’re armed to the teeth.

Whitehead also decries the military-style appearance that police forces sometimes display, with officers in combat fatigues, helmets and boots, sometimes aboard armored vehicles more commonly seen in war zones.

Richmond-area police officials insist their departments are not becoming militarized but say they need to acquire advanced, specialized weapons to keep pace with what they may encounter on the streets. They say the range of weapons they now have is fundamentally no different than the firearms that were at their disposal 25 to 30 years ago, technological advancements notwithstanding.

“I know it’s a big buzzword,” Chesterfield County Police Chief Thierry Dupuis said of the militarization label. “When I hear that term and I hear people talking, for me I think it’s probably the way we’re dressing now and the different styles of uniforms they are seeing … that gives the impression of battle gear.”

“And then, of course, maybe the department gets a big, armored personnel carrier and maybe that starts raising a few flags,” added Dupuis, whose department has largely avoided the free military gear, acquiring only two pairs of night vision goggles. “When you start putting that together and this together, I can understand the questions about it.”

In a months-long effort to learn how Richmond-area police have armed themselves, the Richmond Times-Dispatch acquired through interviews and Freedom of Information Act requests the weapons inventories of police in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico.

Most but not all of the requested information was released after strong initial resistance from Henrico and Richmond. Of the area’s four major departments, Chesterfield was the most cooperative and transparent, supplying the types and quantities of all its weapons and allowing them to be viewed and photographed.

What is clear from the analysis is that all four agencies possess military-grade firearms or their variants that have used by U.S. troops on the battlefield.

The arms include Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns and various types of assault-style rifles, such as the Colt M-16 and M-4 carbine that are heavily used by the U.S. military; the Colt AR-15, which was originally produced for the military; and the Smith & Wesson M&P15, a version of the AR-15.

Combined, police in Richmond, Chesterfield and Hanover have enough assault rifles to outfit a company of 215 soldiers; Henrico police would not disclose their quantity.

Chesterfield has four MP5 .40-caliber submachine guns and seven .40-caliber UMPs, or universal machine pistols — specialized weapons used by SWAT officers that can be deployed only with the chief’s authorization. All have 30-round magazines and select-fire capability, meaning they can fire fully automatic, semi-automatic or in two-shot bursts.

The other three departments declined to provide their numbers of machine guns.

The departments also would not disclose how many tactical sniper rifles they possess, citing concern that making that information public could put officers and citizens at risk because it would allow potential adversaries to assess police capabilities and counter them.

The agencies’ sniper rifles include the Remington 700, used by the U.S. military; the Sig Sauer Blaser T2, used by the Australian military; and the Accuracy International AE MKII, a variant of which was used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The four local police departments said they did not acquire any of the weapons through the Defense Department’s Law Enforcement Support Office program, which has been strongly criticized by civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute.

However, Chesterfield and Henrico police used Department of Homeland Security grants of about $280,000 each to acquire their armored personnel carriers — 8.5 ton, 20-foot-long Lenco BearCats. They were among a dozen or so armored vehicles purchased statewide several years ago through federal grant money.

Police said the vehicles are used for defensive purposes only, allowing officers to move in close to armed confrontations without getting shot. The vehicles have a weapon-mountable rotating roof hatch and multiple side gun ports but no attached guns.

From the early 1990s to date, the congressionally authorized Law Enforcement Support Office program has disbursed $5.1 billion in surplus military equipment to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies across the nation. Five percent of the giveaways have been weapons, and 0.35 percent are tactical vehicles, the agency said.

The program has been used widely by more than 100 law enforcement agencies in Virginia, including police or sheriff’s offices in Petersburg and the counties of Amelia, Caroline, Charles City, Dinwiddie, Goochland and New Kent, according to a database obtained from the Defense Logistics Agency. Unidentified law enforcement agencies in Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover also have received surplus items.

Regional recipients include:

• Petersburg police, which obtained 20 M-16 rifles, three M-14s and five 12-gauge “riot” shotguns in 2006 and 2013;

• the New Kent Sheriff’s Office, which in 2006 and 2010 acquired 10 M-14 rifles and a grenade launcher for tear gas;

• the Goochland Sheriff’s Office, which received 10 12-gauge shotguns in 2006;

• the Charles City Sheriff’s Office, which obtained 11 M-16 rifles in 2012; and

• the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office, which received one M-16 and two M-14s in 2009.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, says there is virtually no civilian oversight of the sophisticated tactical weapons that local police departments are acquiring, either through regular budget purchases or free surplus from the federal government.

“We think it’s extraordinarily important that police understand that, to the extent that they’re going to become military organizations, that civilian oversight even becomes more important,” she said. “Just as our American military has the oversight of the Defense Department and Congress, so should our local law enforcement agencies that are now local militaries.”

She added, “The community should have a role in what weapons they have, how they are going to police, what they’re going to use those weapons for and how well trained they are.”

Richmond Deputy Police Chief John Buturla said police agencies historically have always had specialized equipment and firearms and “none of this is really new.”

Buturla recalled that as a child, he attended an open house for the police department that employed his father and saw “Tommy guns,” or Thompson submachine guns, at the department’s firing range.

The earliest known tactical weapon possessed by Henrico police was the Thompson submachine gun in the 1940s, the county’s chief said.

“We have had weapons such as the MP5 (submachine guns) for in excess of 30 years here in the city of Richmond,” Buturla said.

Buturla said the public likely has become more attuned to specialized police equipment after seeing law enforcement responses to mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo.

“I think the public’s eye has been opened,” Buturla said. “When you see a police response you will see armored vehicles and you will see personnel with shields and helmets and specialized weapons.”

But Whitehead, of the Rutherford Institute, says those types of police responses have increased dramatically and the heavily armed police officers dressed in battle gear — some now attired in black outfits with black masks — can result in a menacing psychological transformation of police.

“The psychological studies show that they become a different entity,” Whitehead said. “The person they’re viewing from that uniform, in that military vehicle and with that military weapon, is an enemy combatant. There’s a mentality, there’s a change in how they view us. And that’s the danger.”

Whitehead, author of “A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State,” noted that in 1980, there were about 3,000 SWAT team-style raids in the U.S. That number grew to 45,000 by 2001 and has since swelled to more than 80,000 SWAT team raids per year.

He said SWAT teams and SWAT-style tactics are used more frequently to carry out routine law enforcement activities. “Why 80,000 SWAT team raids, 80 percent for mere warrant service? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Police point to what they consider to be game-changing shooting incidents over the past 50 years that they say influenced law enforcement tactics and armaments.

They said SWAT units began to proliferate in the late 1960s and early 1970s after the tower shootings at the University of Texas in Austin, where a student and former Marine randomly killed 11 people while perched from the 28th-floor observation deck.

Another defining event occurred in North Hollywood, Calif., in 1997, when two bank robbers clad in body armor engaged Los Angeles police with illegally modified, fully automatic assault rifles with high-capacity drum magazines in the street. Patrol officers were outgunned, carrying only 9 mm or .38-caliber handguns and 12-gauge shotguns.

Eleven police officers and seven civilians were wounded and numerous vehicles and property were damaged or destroyed by the nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition fired by the police and robbers, who eventually were killed.

In subsequent years, many departments across the country began acquiring military-style patrol rifles and boosting their firepower.

“Weapons technology has changed and the types of weapons which we may confront on the street are more advanced and technologically effective,” said Henrico Police Chief Doug Middleton. “If the criminals have these weapons and law enforcement does not, public safety is jeopardized.”

Middleton said it’s a difficult task to keep pace with the specialized weapons criminals possess while “trying to balance what we do as a civilian law enforcement agency. We are not the military.”

But Whitehead remains skeptical. “The Founding Fathers warned against standing armies. They didn’t think the police should be running around on American soil like an army.”

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