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Officials, activists concerned about military-equipped police ‘mission creep’

Along with hundreds of communities nationwide, Spokane-area law enforcement agencies have taken advantage of a government program that outfits officers with military surplus equipment at little or no cost to local taxpayers.

Law enforcement officials say the acquisition of armored personnel carriers, helicopters, weaponry and accessories like night-vision goggles has been occurring for years and is undertaken with officer safety in mind. But civil rights activists and city officials worry about “mission creep” – the potential for the equipment to be used for activities other than squelching domestic terrorism or fighting the drug trade, which were the reasons Congress authorized the sale of military surplus equipment following the first Gulf War.

National interest in the armaments at police disposal has been sparked by the response of officers in Ferguson, Missouri, to protests over the controversial shooting death of a teenager by law enforcement. The New York Times obtained data from the Pentagon indicating all but two of Washington’s counties had taken advantage of the 1033 Program, a Department of Defense service that bills itself as support for the nation’s law enforcement by providing retired military hardware.

“We use that equipment, basically, when it’s a high-risk situation,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Friday. Such situations involve the potential loss of life for deputies and members of the public, Knezovich said.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he trusted Spokane police Chief Frank Straub’s leadership but recent events worried him.

“The chief has done a good job enacting reforms and I haven’t seen our police department act in a way that would raise concerns,” Stuckart said. “But what’s going on in Ferguson really freaked me out. You wonder how much equipment we need stocked away?”

Fighting the drug trade

Spokane County is one of 14 counties in the state that have received a “high-intensity drug trafficking” designation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In order to qualify, a county must show “drug-related activities in the area are having a significant harmful impact,” according to federal law.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office recently received a mine-resistant armored protection (MRAP) vehicle that is intended to be used as a rescue vehicle in situations with armed assailants, said sheriff’s Capt. Mark Werner. Werner said the MRAP is not weaponized in any way.

The Spokane Police Department has its own armored personnel carrier that is used also for mobile cover situations, spokeswoman Monique Cotton said. It also is not weaponized.

Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington, said his organization recognizes the needs of local law enforcement to protect themselves and community members. But he said the policies for use of military-grade equipment should be clearly written down and open to scrutiny by elected officials.

“They should be limited to situations where there’s a threat of violence,” Honig said of military vehicles. The 1033 Program was authorized by Congress near the end of the Gulf War. More than 8,000 law enforcement agencies now participate in the program designed to combat the drug trade. Later language enabled agencies to request equipment to battle domestic terrorism.

In addition to the armored vehicle, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has utility vehicles, a bomb disposal robot, night-vision goggles for helicopter pilots and modified assault rifles obtained through the program, Werner said. The office recently bought two helicopters through the service.

Knezovich, who was once in charge of the office’s SWAT team, said the practice of ordering military equipment through the 1033 Program has been in place for as long as he can remember.

“This is nothing new,” Knezovich said. “We’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been here.”

And grants for the equipment from the federal government have been coming to the City Council for approval as long as Councilwoman Amber Waldref can remember.

“The money was out there and the Police Department brought it to us,” she said, calling it a “free-for-all.”

She said the grants were looked upon as positive since they came at no direct cost to local taxpayers and certain situations called for their use.

“There are times when it’s needed,” she said, citing SWAT episodes and high-risk situations. Waldref noted that she was more concerned with the police department reforming its training policies than its collection of weaponry.

Councilman Mike Fagan, a former military police detective, said he understood the need for some of the military-grade equipment to quell a hostage situation or stop a bank robbery, for instance. But he felt uncomfortable with the trend toward a militarized police force.

“If you’re a police officer, you should be easily identified as a police officer, not a tactical officer,” he said. “I’m not saying we need to be Barney Fife. I’m just saying we don’t need our officers in the street in battle dress uniforms.”

Mayor David Condon was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Stuckart, the council president, said the police chief has already reassured him that a Ferguson-type crackdown would not occur in Spokane and that “citizens can take pictures. Citizens can take video.” Still, he has asked for a full inventory of the Police Department’s military equipment.

“Then I’ll go from there,” he said.

Creating a perception

Much of the furor in the wake of military equipment reaching the streets of Ferguson was prompted by the perceived escalation by law enforcement approaching peaceful protesters in armored vehicles.

Liz Moore, executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, said giving law enforcement military-grade equipment subconsciously promotes a confrontational relationship between police and the public.

“Soldiers are sent in to defeat an enemy, or kill an enemy,” Moore said. “That cannot be the relationship between law enforcement and our community members.”

Law enforcement officials said the equipment is only called in when the threshold of a threat to public and police safety is met, and the lethal capabilities are curbed by modifications to the hardware. Though Spokane County has taken advantage of the program, it is not alone in doing so.

Pentagon data provided to the New York Times showed all but two counties in Washington have ordered military equipment through the Department of Defense program. Whatcom County, a community roughly half the size of Spokane County, has ordered five armored vehicles, 82 pieces of night-vision equipment and 11 assault rifles in the past eight years, according to the Times. Grant County has outfitted its officers with 58 assault rifles formerly in military use, according to the same data set.

Fagan said this type of weaponry generally didn’t sit well with him.

“Police officers are human. There are lapses in judgment that do occur,” he said. “When you’re decked out in full military regalia, your mental state is you’re ready for war. You’re not doing a traffic stop. That would be one hell of a traffic stop.”