The Most Militarized Police Departments in RI
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Since 2009, local police have acquired 4,745 items ranging from bullet-proof helmets to armored Humvees through a military surplus program that was instituted in 1997. At least 15 police departments have participated in the program over the last four years.
The Johnston Police Department has obtained the most items, including 30 units of armor plating, nearly 600 high-capacity rifle magazines, a chemical protective suit, and even three improvised explosive device training kits. Johnston police have acquired seven Humvees although it’s not clear whether those were obtained in recent years.
Coventry police have received 54 silencers, at least two Humvee assembly kits, and 432 gun magazines. Other police agencies have sought weapons parts, protective gear, and other supplies ranging from chemical protective suits to satellite-enabled navigation systems, according to an acquisition list maintained by the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the program.
‘Could you have a standoff? You could’
A local civil rights advocate questioned the need for all that equipment at a local level. James Vincent, the president of the Providence branch of the NAACP said he could understand why a larger city—or even a smaller one like Providence—might need military supplies. But he says he can’t understand why a town like Johnston would need Humvees.
The militarization of local law enforcement came to the fore this summer after the racial and social unrest that erupted in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb of 21,203 residents. One iconic photo of the crisis captured police officers dressed in military garb, weapons drawn, confronting an apparently unarmed protester.
Could it happen here? “I don’t think you would have the same level of animus, racial rioting. I don’t think you would have that, but could you have a standoff?” Vincent said. “You could. You could in some of our urban communities.”
The use of military force—especially when there is no relationship of trust with the community—only escalates matters, ultimately proving ineffective, Vincent said.
Militarization seen as threat to civil liberties
The department-specific data offers just a limited window into the growing militarization of law enforcement—in Rhode Island and across the nation. While most generic military supplies are listed by department, tactical weapons acquisitions are provided only on a county-level basis for what defense officials say are security reasons.
Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said militarization changes how local law enforcement views the public they are supposed to be protecting.
“The increasing militarization of local police departments is extremely troubling. It can escalate the risk of needless violence, and create a mentality where communities are seen as ‘enemy territory’ instead of a populace to serve. The excessive weaponry that police departments are obtaining under the Department of Defense program is completely unnecessary and potentially dangerous. When the lines between civilian law enforcement and the military become so blurred, all of our liberties are at risk,” Brown said.
Militarization has raised red flags for conservatives as well.
“Military equipment—from machine guns to armored trucks—is designed for use against an enemy, mainly in hostile terrain. That’s a very different mission from serving and protecting a civilian population at home,” said Justin Katz, the managing editor of Anchor Rising and the Ocean State Current. “We have to balance community security and officer safety with individual liberty. However, militarization of police is implicitly a constraint on our freedom. My larger concern is that big government and militarized police go hand in hand.”
In those rare cases where a military-style response is needed, Katz said “actual military units” should be called in to support local police. “If police departments find they need this sort of firepower to enforce the law, generally, we have to start wondering why there’s so much law to enforce,” Katz said.
Local police contacted for comment defended their military acquisitions.
In Johnston, most acquisitions have gone towards the department’s Special Response Team, which handles incidents such as the taking of a hostage or an active shooter, according to Deputy Chief Daniel Parillo. Asked if there had been any incidents in the past year, Parillo said he did not recall any, but he said he was sure there have been a couple in recent years.
“You always prepare for the worst and you train for the worst,” Parillo said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
So far the seven Humvees the department acquired have been most helpful during snowstorms, Parillo said. When asked about the acquisition the IED training kits, Parillo said he did not know why the department had those. Sometimes, he said, supplies came as a package deal.
Some items are not necessarily combat-related: Johnston got two backup generators and 21 flat panel monitors for computers through the program as well.
When asked what he would say to critics of police militarization, Parillo responded: “We’re just preparing for what the potential is.”
He pointed to the Humvees the department received. He said the police cruisers and SVUs the department had could not navigate the severe floods that hit in 2010. But the one running Humvee the department was able to scrap together from military supplies could. “We were very fortunate that we had something like a Humvee that we could take out,” Daniels said. “That’s how we see a lot of the equipment that we have.”
While critics may point to Ferguson as an argument against militarization, Daniels pointed to the recent shooting in which one Pennsylvania state trooper was killed and the other wounded. “Clearly in Pennsylvania I don’t think anyone would argue that [those] men and women should have been out there without that equipment,” Daniels said.
Program under review
The equipment is not purchased meaning there is little cost to local law enforcement other than covering shipping expenses, according to a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency.
“Requests from law enforcement agencies are screened by state coordinators and also by DLA's Law Enforcement Support Office staff to make sure the agency can justify the request and meet certain criteria. The program is on a first come, first serve basis. Law enforcement agencies must pay for shipping the items as well as potential storage costs,” said the spokeswoman, Latonya Johnson.
When asked what her agency says to critics of the program, Johnston responded: “Recently, the President called for a review of the 1033 program. Secretary Hagel has directed his staff to cooperate fully with the review to ensure that the transfer of Department of Defense materials for law enforcement strikes the proper balance of accountability and purpose.”
A spokesman for Kevin McBride, the Commanding General of the Rhode Island National Guard, declined comment.
Related Slideshow: Police Militarization - Department by Department Breakdown
Below are those fifteen local police departments that have obtained military supplies, listed from least to most items acquired. The list does not include acquisition records for certain tactical weapons and supplies for which the Pentagon has refused to release department-specific data. (In those instances only county-level data has been released. That data is not included below.) Records are for recent acquisitions going back to 2009 and were obtained from the Defense Logistics Agency.
Items Purchased: 2,389
Summary of Equipment: Armor plates (30 units), Demolition firing device (1 unit), Improvised Explosive Device training it (9 units), High capacity rifle magazines (599 units), Chemical protective suit (1 unit), High-speed tractor (1 unit), Diesel generators (2 units), Flat panel monitors (21 units)
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