Police defend use of old military equipment
By Michael Gonzalez Post-Tribune correspondent August 19, 2014 6:06PM
Munster Clerk-Treasurer David Shafer poses in the Town of Munster's new MRAP Caiman 6x6 vehicle Tuesday afternoon as former Councilman Mike Mellon listens to an explanation of it. The vehicle is the third one secured in District 1 and will be used in Jasper, Newton, Porter, LaPorte and Lake counties. | Michelle L. Quinn~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 21, 2014 6:22AM
While law enforcement personnel use former military vehicles to patrol the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and body armor-clad police officers launch tear gas and smoke canisters into demonstrators and rioters, local police officials said it is better to have military grade equipment and not need it than to need it and not have it.
But using former, or demilitarized, military equipment must be balanced with respect for communities’ rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
Demilitarized equipment can be a valuable tool in everyday police work, said Portage Police Chief Troy Williams. His department has received two Humvees, a four-seater and a two-seater, that have been used for everything from SWAT raids to parades and rescuing people stuck in heavy snows.
“I would rather have tool in our tool belt and not need it than need it and not have it,” Williams said, calling the use of military-grade equipment on local police forces “a hot button topic.”
“The police profession is a paramilitary organization, and there’s a lot of the same concepts. A lot of time people have a hard time grasping that, but our job is to protect and serve.”
Northwest Indiana police departments’ ranges of demilitarized equipment run the gamut, from pistols and assault rifles to night vision goggles and body armor pieces and three mine-resistant, ambush-protected, or MRAP, vehicles. Munster hosted a dedication of its MRAP on Aug. 5 with U.S. Rep Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and other dignitaries.
According to information from the Pentagon and published in the New York Times, Lake County police departments have received 129 assault rifles, 32 shotguns, 20 pistols and one MRAP since 2006.
The same graphic indicated Porter County departments have received 48 assault rifles, two armored vehicles and a grenade launcher that can be used for smoke grenades and tear gas canisters since 2006.
The local numbers dwarf in comparison to Marion County police departments, with 330 assault rifles and three grenade launchers from the federal government and Cook County, Illinois, departments, which have received 1,202 assault rifles, 324 body armor pieces and 112 night vision pieces in the same time frame.
In Northwest Indiana, much of the military gear has come with help from Visclosky, who has tapped into federal programs including the Defense Department’s Excess Property Program.
That program provides used military equipment for counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism activities and “to enhance officer safety.”
“Protecting our citizens and law enforcement personnel from harm’s way is a priority,” Visclosky said. “It is the responsibility of the state, county and local community that receive the equipment to use it in a fashion that reflects the rights all citizens enjoy under the Constitution.”
Having demilitarized equipment makes sense “just in case,” Merrillville Police Chief Joseph Petruch said. His department has an MRAP on loan from the federal government, as do the Michigan City and Valparaiso police departments.
“I don’t even think that should be a discussion,” Petruch said of departments using demilitarized equipment. “This vehicle is here for public safety. It’s not an assault vehicle.”
Other police departments reported getting rubber bullets, night vision equipment and thermal imaging equipment.
In a statement released last week, the ACLU of Indiana said it understands local policing can be challenging work, “but we feel the presence of military machinery in our neighborhoods is alarming.”
In its June report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” the agency called for the federal, state and local governments to track the use of demilitarized equipment by local departments, more criteria for their use and “an atmosphere that protects both our safety and our rights and freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”
Williams, the Portage police chief, said establishing protocols for demilitarized equipment’s use and “common sense” should govern the use of such equipment in situations ranging from hostage scenes to a protest that turns into a riot.
“Each department has to decide which protocol works for them,” Williams said. “It’s all part and parcel of an overall scheme on how to address things when they do occur.”