Obscure government program lends tactical gear to local law enforcement

Police using military gear

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Just three months ago, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri looked more like a war zone than a suburb of St. Louis are teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer.

As the images spread on television, on the web, and across social media, so did the criticism.

Many called Ferguson a "police state" and wondered why law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb appeared to be armed for war. But the scene in Missouri could happen right here in North Carolina.

Many police departments, big and small, are using an obscure federal program that gives surplus military equipment to local law enforcement.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety tracks 1033 equipment received by every department across the state. WBTV has been digging though the list and began to see a pattern, a large amount of tactical gear is going to smaller, more rural agencies.

Caldwell County Sheriff Alan Jones takes pride in the Armored Personnel Vehicle the 1033 gave his department.

"This can take a lot of firepower, it can take a blast, from say an IED for example," Jones said.

Jones doesn't expect to drive up on a roadside bomb, but he does believe the massive machine is needed. Before APV was in their arsenal, five deputies were shot in just 18 months.

"In a situation where you have an active shooter, I couldn't ask for anything better," Jones said.

That is just one of thousands of items the Department of Defense has doled out to local agencies since the creation of the 1033 program in 1997.

WBTV has uncovered agencies across the area have 664 different DOD issued items in their armories.

Gaston County has 118 assault rifles, 1033 gave Iredell County two pairs of night vision goggles and Cleveland County has three grenade launchers. But Captain Joel Shores with the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office say they're actually used to shoot tear gas.

"Now, it may shoot grenades, but we don't have any grenades," Shores said.

But it's hard to picture a situation in Cleveland County that would require such force. Shores says those encounters are impossible to predict.

"We never know. You probably could have asked that same question ot the Ferguson police chief and he probably would have said no," Shores said.

Both agencies WBTV sat down with agree they only use 1033 gear on the defensive, to protect their officers in dangerous situations.

"We don't mount weapons, we don't go on the offensive, most of them time we're on the defensive," Jones said.

"Someone's barricaded in a home and they're shooting at you, would you like to have an armored vehicle to drive up to that home? Most people would say yes," Shores added.

But Matt Meno with the North Carolina's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union believes tactical gear has no place in every day police work.

"These are tools that were designed to be used on a foreign battlefield, that now community police officers have at their disposal and what we see time and again is that this can lead to tragedy when there is not proper oversight," Meno said.

A recent report compiled by the ACLU states that 62 percent of SWAT deployments using tactical gear nationwide between 2011 and 2012 involved drug searches.

"Only seven percent of the SWAT deployments that we studied nationally were for an active shooter, a hostage, or a barricade situation," Meno said.

Meno believes those tactical situations happen more in urban areas, and that Mecklenburg County has more of a need for 1033 equipment than its smaller counterparts.

"The real concern is these smaller communities and small towns that don't host these events, that don't have the frequency of crimes, are just being flooded with grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers," Meno said.

But Jones and Shores disagree, arguing that it's impossible to ever know what they're walking into.

"What would they want if they were standing in the street? If they were having Molotov cocktails thrown at them, if they were having shots fired at them, what would they want," Shores asked.

Both agencies added their officers go through extensive training before they have access to assault rifles and other gear.

The ACLU is in favor of officers wearing body cameras, so that they can be held accountable for their actions.

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