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The Lake News Online
  • Military equipment in the lake area tallies almost $1.5 million

  • The events in Ferguson have many seeing the line between local police departments and the military blur, but local department officials say they haven't used, and don't plan to use, military equipment they received through the federal program in the same manner as seen in Ferguson.
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  • Snipers trained their rifles at a vocal and angry crowd, positioned on top of armored vehicles and donning war helmets and bulletproof vests.
    Angry protesters, many of whom were dressed in simple t-shirts and gym shorts, hurled canisters of tear gas back at Missouri State Highway Patrol officers sent to Ferguson, Mo. in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a Ferguson police officer.
    The protesters were armed with handguns, knives and homemade molotov cocktails. Their enemies, the police they blamed for general unfair treatment of citizens, had military-grade arms and armaments.
    Take the streets of Ferguson — a suburb of St. Louis — out of the equation and one could envision the scene in a war zone. It wasn't that long ago that U.S. military personnel were on active duty in Iraq and Vietnam.
    But as the visible tension in the form of violent confrontations between law enforcement agencies and angry residents has died down after the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown, the conversation over what the police carry and use and how they react in certain situations has picked up momentum.
    Some have said the police have a right to protect themselves in dicy situations, others see the use of equipment meant originally for a military capacity as a fundamental and dangerous change.
    Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has called the police response in Ferguson "the problem instead of the solution."
    As a result of the clashes between citizens and local law enforcement armed with military equipment, McCaskill will lead a hearing in September looking into the militarization of police departments. The hearing will be held by the Financial & Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, of which McCaskill chairs.
    McCaskill is one in a string of politicians who criticized the police response in Ferguson as too extreme for the situation. Many point to a government program that doles out military wares throughout the country as a cause for the extreme reaction.
    Several departments in the lake area have received military equipment from the 1033 Program, a venture facilitated by the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) of the Defense Logistics Agency, a division of the Department of Defense (DOD). Local recipients include the Camden County Sheriff's Department, the Morgan County Sheriff's Department, the Miller County Sheriff's Department, Linn Creek Police Department, Laurie Police Department and Eldon Police Department.
    Thousands of agencies across the country have received equipment from the program. The flow of goods to local agencies has dramatically increased from $1 million at its inception in the early 1990s to nearly $450 million in 2013.
    Originally used to provide state agencies with equipment to counter drug operations in 1990, the program expanded in fiscal year 1997 to include all law enforcement agencies. Once LESO approves an agency's application into the program, equipment can transfer locally. Agencies can browse for equipment — which ranges from cold-weather boots and space heaters to computer without hard drives all the way up to automatic firearms and armored vehicles — online like Amazon or eBay or visit a Disposition Services Site to physically see available equipment.
    Page 2 of 4 - The events in Ferguson have many seeing the line between local police departments and the military blur, but local department officials say they haven't used, and don't plan to use, military equipment they received through the federal program in the same manner as seen in Ferguson.
    Morgan County has received the most military equipment of the tri-county area. The equipment that the Morgan County Sheriff's Office has received from the DOD surplus program has been accumulated over several years for the purpose of officer protection and public safety, not aggression, said Sheriff Jim Petty.
    While the department covers a rural community, the area is not immune to what was once considered big-city crime. With the spread of drugs and more serious crimes and criminals, rural police forces have responded by enhancing their capabilities through grants and programs such as the DOD surplus program.
    But the military equipment is not just about crime, Petty argues. The DOD vehicles are armored, but because of other attributes, they can also make good rescue vehicles.
    Linn Creek Police Chief Trevor Dowdney agrees. His department has a soft-top HumVee from the program.
    "The HumVee is solely for the purpose of enhanced mobility during inclement weather," Dowdney said. "It was used last year and the year before with great effect during the floods, and when we had heavy snowfall."
    As surplus, the equipment doesn't cost small, rural departments anything other than transporting it back home, allowing smaller law enforcement departments to obtain gear that they would not otherwise be able to afford. Dowdney said without the HumVee, his department would have had no way to help stranded motorists, and even a tow truck, during wintry weather.
    "When a vehicle is essentially free it is hard to turn it down when you have a requirement for it," Dowdney added.
    The Laurie Police Department also has a HumVee from the DOD that Chief Mark Black said they use in a similar manner to Linn Creek — for rescue purposes in inclement weather only.
    While Morgan County has one mine-resistant vehicle and one other armored vehicle, there are no guns attached to them. There were gun turrets at the top of the vehicles, and those spots are still visible but the turret has been taken off and the vehicles did not come with the machine guns that formerly went there when in use by the military.
    The department does not have that kind of weaponry, and Petty said they have no need for a 50-caliber machine gun.
    "I want my officers to be able to go home at night and that's why we have those vehicles. We simply want to protect ourselves," Petty said. "I will not apologize for protecting my officers with whatever equipment we need to use."
    Page 3 of 4 - The most recent item from military surplus is the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. The apparatus was something that could have been used in Iraq or Afghanistan. It happens to be armored because of its past life, but the sheriff's office got it to use as a rescue vehicle, Petty said. The all six wheel drive can go safely into five feet of water and can go over downed trees.
    According to Petty, there have been three past incidents in which there were drownings in swift water at low water bridges because they could not get the people out in time. Now with the MRAP, they could simply drive in and open the door. It could also be used to reach people in the aftermath of a tornado when trees and large debris can block a regular vehicle's path.
    It cost Morgan County a little more than $1,000 to bring it up from Texas, but originally cost the U.S. government $733,000, according to a tag on the vehicle. Deputies have received special training on driving the MRAP at Fort Leonard Wood.
    It still belongs to the DOD and would be transferred back to it or to another law enforcement agency if Morgan County no longer wanted it.
    The MRAP is of limited use to the county, but if it were not loaned to Morgan County through the DOD program, it could have just sat in storage and rotted, Petty said.
    The vehicle could also act as an armored personnel carrier, but the department has a smaller HumVee from the DOD program that is generally used for that purpose and is a quick response unit for the SWAT team.
    The department does need armored transport vehicles, said Petty. Officers do get shot at and they have had an officer shot.
    Petty compared the armored vehicles to mobile storm shelters — a safe place for officers if they are being fired upon. Storm shelters are of limited use and you may never need one, he compared, but they're nice to have just in case.
    The HumVee is used for high intensity searches for known felons and fugitives who police believe or know are armed and dangerous. The most recent case being the search for wanted sex offender Brian Adkison in June 2013 in the southern part of the county. Over the years, officers have also had to deal with stand-offs and face people shooting from a house, including domestic violence situations, according to the long-time sheriff.
    The HumVee was deployed to take a fugitive from Florida into custody who was wanted for killing his wife, Petty recalls in one example of its use.
    "It's no different than the President having an armored vehicle. It's just for protection like wearing a bullet-proof vest," said Petty. "I have gone to places where people are shooting at us and threatening to shoot us — armed confrontations. Officer safety is the whole thing, officer safety and rescue."
    Page 4 of 4 - The assault rifles are basically for the SWAT team as well — as are the night vision pieces. In searches during drug cases, it common for dealers to have guns at hand.
    The night vision pieces are used to monitor drug houses at night, according to Petty. He also noted that the county has received motorized wheelchairs for prisoners from the U.S. government as well as cots, an emergency generator and a mobile command unit for disasters.
    From the MRAP to the night vision goggles, the pieces are tools intended to protect the public and officers, Petty said.
    While Morgan County uses its litany of equipment for officer protection, the Camden County Sheriff's Department uses its heavy military equipment for maintenance of the firing range, according to Capt. Kelly Luttrell.
    The county acquired major vehicles, including skid steers and a bulldozer, from 1033 Program. The heavy equipment is also used for basic clean up after inclement weather and to fix roads as needed. The county also has several automatic rifles that are used in ceremonial capacities, mostly parades, only according to Luttrell. Officers utilize night-vision equipment in manhunts and missing person cases.
    While many agencies have already received equipment, some haven't.
    Sunrise Beach Police Chief Dave Slavens said they have only gotten a couple of bullet-proof vests from state surplus. Lake Ozark Interim Police Chief Mark Maples said the department tried to get a military boat without success. Osage Beach Police Chief Todd Davis said the department is in the LESO database, but hasn't received equipment yet.
    In Missouri, Cole County has received the lion's share of equipment, with hundreds of automatic rifles, four helicopters and dozens of other pieces. The Missouri State Highway Patrol is headquartered in the county.
    Equipment transferrals from as far back as October 2006 show that the lake area counties received $1,429,575 in gear from the Department of Defense as of May.
    Miller County took in the least amount with $30,488 in equipment including monitors, knee pads, tool kits, 14 .45 automatic pistols, 13 5.56mm rifles and two 7.62mm rifles. Camden County took in $330,807 in equipment. Agencies in the county received, among other things, ammunition chests, drawers, traffic cones, four utility trucks, two cargo trailers, one tractor truck and two 5.56mm rifles. Morgan County received $1,068,279 in equipment. Agencies in the county acquired coveralls, four utility trucks, six pieces of night vision equipment, 18 automatic assault firearms, a Kawasaki mule and the MRAP.
    Lake Media's Spree Hilliard and Dan Field contributed to this report.

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