On the day a heavily armed couple fatally shot 14 people and wounded more than 20 others in San Bernardino, Calif., last month, Michael J. Bouchard, a sheriff here in the Detroit area, got an order to return his department’s 14-ton armored personnel carrier to the federal government.
It was one of hundreds of similar notifications from the Obama administration to law enforcement agencies across the country — from Los Angeles to rural areas like Calhoun County, Ala. — to give back an array of federal surplus military equipment by April 1, in response to concerns that the equipment was unnecessary and misused. The items to be returned: armored vehicles that run on tracks, .50-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage clothing.
Most of the agencies have complied without complaint. But to Sheriff Bouchard and some other suburban and rural sheriffs, the orders were an infuriating, if entirely legal, federal overreach, leaving local officials without critical tools in an age of heightened fears about terrorism and mass shootings.“This isn’t Mayberry, where a guy goes and locks himself in jail because he got drunk,” Sheriff Bouchard said, describing Oakland County, Mich., where he has been the sheriff since 1999. “There are guys who walk up to you and fire off 13 rounds in a couple of seconds.”
Since at least the 1990s, with congressional approval, the Pentagon has sent extra military equipment to local law enforcement agencies in every state — including to police and sheriff’s departments; prisons; and school, university and park police. That program expanded after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when federal officials began to view police departments as critical in fighting terrorism.Then came the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., against the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.As the police there confronted demonstrators, social media and television were flooded with scenes of officers clad in body armor while riding atop armored vehicles, aiming semiautomatic rifles at protesters. Images of the police as soldiers provoked sharp criticism, including from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.Amid the protests, President Obama ordered a review of the military equipment program by a panel including the heads of the Defense, Homeland Security and Justice Departments. The panel’s report, made public last year, cited the public uproar caused by the police response in Ferguson and said the government had failed to adequately oversee the program. It also pointed to a June 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that documented the flow of battlefield gear to local police departments and instances of its abuse.
“Take them away from anyone who used them improperly, absolutely, but don’t punish everyone,” said Sheriff Larry Amerson of Calhoun County, who was recently ordered to send back his department’s M-113 armored vehicle. “Now, if we have an active-shooter situation with an armed person, we don’t have any piece of equipment to move in safely for my deputies or the people I’m sworn to protect.”
The Pentagon said local agencies that had been ordered to return tracked armored vehicles like the M-113 would get priority in receiving similar vehicles, including Humvees and MRAPs, which can withstand roadside bombs.