Amid national alarm on police tactics, area arsenals also growing

Gloucester Township Police armored truck can withstand .50-caliber rifle rounds, according to Deputy Chief David Harkins.
Gloucester Township Police armored truck can withstand .50-caliber rifle rounds, according to Deputy Chief David Harkins.
Posted: August 28, 2014

As most people along Gloucester Township's Hampshire Road slept on an early Friday morning, an armored police truck approached the home of a suspected heroin dealer, stopping in the grass just past the driveway.

At least eight officers in body armor and black helmets spilled out, with pistols, shotguns, and rifles. One officer emerged from the open hatch of the truck. The vehicle, according to Deputy Chief David Harkins, can withstand .50-caliber rifle rounds.

Inside the home, though, police found a tiny arsenal: one pistol.

The Aug. 8 raid, which also netted heroin and marijuana, came the day before the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the military-style police response to protests afterward that has sparked national alarm over the apparent militarization of police forces.

Across South Jersey and in Philadelphia and its suburbs, the strength of police departments has grown substantially, with military and tactical equipment funneled to them by Homeland Security Department grants, other federal programs, and local drug forfeiture funds.

Five years ago in Camden County, the nearest armored police truck was one county over, in Gloucester. Now, there are two in Camden County. In Pennsylvania, departments in Montgomery and Delaware Counties have received a total of three mine-resistant vehicles just this year.

Authorities on both sides of the Delaware say the stronger equipment can save lives, bringing officers closer to crime scenes such as hostage situations that previously kept them distant and exposed. The equipment can also be operated for other needs, they say.

In Middletown Township, a Shore community in New Jersey, a mine-resistant vehicle and humvees are used for water rescues. Media inquiries about their purpose are "driving me nuts," said administrator Tony Mercantante. "It just doesn't make any sense to me for people to be bothered by the fact this is surplus equipment. It was going to be disposed of one way or another."

On the other side is John DeCarlo, a former police chief in Branford, Conn. He said he was concerned that the growing stockpiles of military equipment are making officers view themselves as warriors rather than policemen and -women.

"And police should not strive to be soldiers, because soldiers have enemies, and police have communities," said DeCarlo, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

In a June report, weeks before Ferguson, the American Civil Liberties Union said it had studied SWAT responses across the nation and found that weapons such as flash-bang grenades and assault rifles were being used for minor drug searches.

"Neighborhoods are not war zones," the report said. "And our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies."

Since Ferguson, President Obama has ordered a review of federal programs that offer military gear to police. In New Jersey, State Sen. Nia H. Gill (D., Montclair) has asked the state attorney general to do the same.

In the last 10 months in New Jersey, law enforcement agencies have received more than $21 million worth of excess equipment from the Department of Defense. In Pennsylvania, agencies have received $5.4 million.The equipment has ranged from office supplies - screwdrivers and refrigerators - to shotguns and humvees.

The merchandise comes from the federal 1033 program, named after a section in the National Defense Authorization Act. In 1997, it authorized giving unused military equipment to police departments, at little cost, for what it called counter-drug and counterterrorism purposes.

More than 8,000 federal and state agencies have used the program. In New Jersey, which began using it in 2003, 124 agencies have received equipment, state officials said. In Pennsylvania, 135 agencies are participating.

Each agency must justify the need for the equipment and request it through the program's state coordinator and federal officials, who accept or deny it. If approved, the local agency must pay for shipping, which can cost thousands (though authorities say that's much less than the millions it would cost to purchase the equipment).

Among some of the tools local police have received, according to a federal database on 1033 recipients: 100 combat knives for police in the Jersey Shore community of Belmar, and a grenade launcher for a department in Bergen County in North Jersey.

Philadelphia police took in more than 250 M16 rifles last year. A department spokeswoman, Officer Tanya Little, said they were converted from automatic to semiautomatic and would be used only when police faced similar firepower. "We're not just walking around with them," she said.

Officials in other cities and towns voice similar defenses, saying the equipment is meant to take on criminals, not law-abiding residents.

In Gloucester Township, scene of the early August drug raid, police said they had used their armored vehicle 15 times since purchasing it in July 2013. The price of the truck: $277,986 in drug forfeiture and municipal capital funds.

"It's just a piece of equipment," Harkins, the deputy chief, said. "It's how the equipment is used. And in circumstances where someone is firing a gun at officers, there's nothing like having something that you know is going to be able to stop the bullets."

Harkins acknowledged that no one has shot at the all-wheel-drive LENCO BearCat model G2, which is equipped with a thermal imaging camera. In addition to drug raids, it has been used to deal with barricaded suspects.

Camden County has its own armored vehicle, purchased for $289,000 through a Homeland Security grant in 2009. Gloucester Township police have access to this vehicle, but felt they needed their own because of the possibility that more than one armored vehicle could be needed at a scene, Harkins said.

In Chester Township, Pa., the mine-resistant vehicle police received in April was deployed once in nearby Chester City, where authorities requested it for a suspect barricaded with a .50-caliber weapon. The suspect came out with his hands up after seeing the vehicle come up the driveway, Chester Township Police Chief Ken Coalson said.

"We saved a life," he said, adding that if the suspect had been near a window with a gun out, "one of the snipers might have killed him."

The vehicle, he said, "doesn't go out on riots unless it's needed."

But to some police officials, justifying the need for such equipment can be a struggle. On one end are those who call the big guns and vehicles excessive. On the other end are those who will be angry if police could have saved lives with the tools but didn't have them.

"You can't win no matter which way you spin it," said Gloucester City Police Chief George Berglund.

"It's a difficult situation to be in, but there's a practical need" for the equipment, he said. "As far as when to deploy it, that's a different story."


INSIDE

A list of some arsenal equipment received by area police. A5.

Federal prosecutions not easy

in police shootings.

A6.


mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc

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