Politics & Government

Ex-military guns, vehicles in hands of midstate police

Across Middle Georgia, millions of dollars of military gear -- including automatic rifles made for battlefields and expensive armored vehicles -- have been put into the hands of local police officers and deputies.

When ex-military gear from the same federal program was used in riots in Ferguson, Missouri, some critics blasted what they called the militarization of the police. Local police, however, say their use of the program is just common sense.

Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece got an armored mine-resistant vehicle through what’s known as the 1033 military surplus program. He said it was a great fit for the county’s SWAT team -- and it was free.

“We don’t have any mines here, but we use it as a SWAT vehicle. It saves us from ever having us to buy one. We don’t have $250,000, $300,000, $400,000,” Reece said.

And the one from the military -- listed in a state database with an original cost of $733,000 -- was in superb shape. “It’s brand-new. The motor had two miles on it,” Reece said.

But regular citizens aren’t going to get pulled over by the armored vehicle if they’re speeding. Reece said the vehicle is to protect officers in extreme situations, and the vehicle has never been called out.

The Jones County Sheriff’s Office used the 1033 program to get common place items, too. When an ice storm felled trees and power lines, ex-military sleeping bags kept inmates warm, and ex-military trucks helped clear nearly 300 trees, Reece said.

“I couldn’t have had that many four-wheel-drive vehicles if it hadn’t been for that program,” he said.

The Warner Robins Police Department also has a mine-resistant vehicle, according to a state database. Police Chief Brett Evans could not be reached for comment Friday. But last month, a Warner Robins man pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer from an incident last year, when police said he fired more than 50 rounds from an SKS assault rifle at police. Most armored vehicles are resistant to such gunfire.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUND

Sometimes armored vehicles like those used in Ferguson are called tanks -- despite being a fraction of the size and without the cannon and machine guns of real tanks. That’s led to interesting conversations in Fort Valley State University classes, said Michael Qualls, an assistant professor of criminal justice who was chief of police in small communities and universities.

“Like I was discussing in my class this morning, I had students who believed these police agencies were getting tanks, and I tried to explain to them there’s a difference between a tank and an armored vehicle,” he said Friday.

The general public might be more confused than criminal justice students. Qualls said that makes community policing even more important, where police officers build up a dialogue with people and get to know them.

Programs such as Warner Robins police’s Citizen Police Academy can reach a handful of people at a time, but those people may tell their friends about how they better understand police operations.

“Once you have a personal relationship established, it’s much easier to establish trust, then if it’s an us-them-we-they type of daily confrontation,” Qualls said.

Qualls said the media have blown out of proportion the issue of militarization of police. Police officers only now are getting parity on some of the higher fire power weaponry that they can encounter on the street. And most members of the public may never see the military gear, which is more likely to be used in SWAT operations, he said.

“There’s an inherent danger in policing,” Qualls said. “It’s something that police officers accept. It’s just something they will have to deal with, normally not on a day-to-day basis. Most contacts between officers and civilians are peaceful and do not escalate into any type of violent confrontation. Many officers go throughout their entire careers, 20 or 30 years, without having to draw their weapon in the line of duty. But what do we see on the news?”

WHAT’S OUT THERE

Some Middle Georgia police agencies, like the Jones County Sheriff’s Office, used the 1033 program only for non-lethal vehicles, clothing and office supplies.

Some departments have used 1033 only to get guns built for the battlefield.

The Dooly County schools police, for example, got nothing more lethal than a microwave oven.

The Bibb County campus police, on the other hand, picked up five M-14 rifles about seven years ago. They fire a heavier bullet than the M-16 rifles favored by many agencies.

Campus police Chief Russell Bentley did not want to discuss specifics but said the tactics used in case of “active shooters” have changed since the school system got the rifles. The different techniques make the guns less likely to be used.

“Our hope is that we never need to deploy them in an active situation, but our plans are to continue to bring staff on and as training is available, to continue to get individuals trained in the event for preparedness,” Bentley said Friday.

The Telegraph’s review of the state’s 1033 database, which goes back to 2006, found no other Georgia public school systems with rifles. Fulton County schools police bought trucks but no guns.

However, college campuses have been getting guns. Central Georgia Technical College police picked up four M-16 rifles in the last four years and is not the only state college to have such weapons.

Most of the guns have gone to police and sheriff’s departments representing the residents of towns and counties. Sometimes firearms travel to both in an area: The Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department acquired a mix of M-14s and M-16s, while the Milledgeville Police Department got 29 M-16s.

The Houston County Sheriff’s Office picked up 20 M-14s and 30 M-16s, while all three of its cities got arms: Centerville police got M-14 and M-16 rifles, as well as some .45-caliber handguns, 10 guns in total; Perry police got eight M-16s; and Warner Robins police picked up 46 M-16s and four M-14s.

Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese doesn’t want his ex-military M-16 rifles to remain fully automatic. He’s having them converted to fire only semi-automatic, with each pull of the trigger firing a single shot. With the work, he’ll have 20 inexpensive semi-automatic rifles, far cheaper but similar to costly civilian AR-15 rifles. They’ll be standardized across the department, simplifying training by eliminating a hodgepodge of guns he has now. He doesn’t expect them to be used and said he can’t remember a Peach County case that involved gunfire.

BEING PREPARED

Deese’s agency and the Byron Police Department share a SWAT team, which saves money. Byron police Chief Wesley Cannon said the military’s 1033 program and other surplus programs have provided important equipment. The city has an ex-military fire truck, a 14-year-old ex-military pickup truck so low in miles it’s still under the factory warranty, and even an $8,500 set of lights attached to a generator that had been used for a single hour.

Cannon showed The Telegraph some of the guns acquired through the 1033 program: A .45-caliber M1911A1 pistol, an M-16A1 automatic rifle that might have been produced in the 1960s, and a Vietnam-era Mossberg shotgun. Some guns that were given to police may never have been fired, he said.

Asked if he was worried about militarization of the police, Cannon replied, “You could have some people that are worried about it, and some people that don’t care either way, and some people that believe we need to have some equipment and some of these weapons available should we need them, because the worst thing in the world is for a police department not to be prepared for any situation it could be put in.”

Cannon had to borrow a gun from his father 20 years ago to start with the Byron Police Department, which didn’t supply pistols. Now the department supplies guns, bulletproof vests and other important gear -- and maybe has fired just two rounds in the line of duty in that time, he said.

He said he hopes the ex-military gear never has to be used.

“The hope is to be prepared and never have to use it. That’s the goal,” he said.

“If my men do not have the equipment to handle any situation they might be subjected to,” Cannon said, “then I’m not doing my job.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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