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Connecticut police receive millions of dollars in military equipment from program that’s under fire

The Willimantic Police Department’s SWAT vehicle given to the town in 2013 by the Department of Defense through the 1033 program. Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said the one acquired by Norwalk Police is smaller than the one obtained by Willimantic. (Willimantic Police Department)

In April, the Bridgeport Police Department received from the Pentagon a heavily armored mine-resistant vehicle valued at more than $705,000. The Norwalk Police Department was also authorized to receive a similar vehicle, all as part of a long-standing program that critics charge has ‘militarized’ state and local police departments and contributed to an increase in violence in law enforcement.

The armored vehicles are only recent examples of the $20 million worth of military hardware delivered to Connecticut police under the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program. The program donates excess war-fighting gear to police across the nation –including assault-style weapons, helicopters, night vision goggles, and anti-riot gear.

Growing criticism of the program prompted the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association to announce Tuesday a 90-day moratorium on accepting more military equipment.

Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, president of the chiefs association, said the 90-day moratorium will give Connecticut departments “time to reassess what equipment we have or need.” He said the association’s action was in response to Gov. Ned Lamont’s order this week halting the acceptance of surplus federal military equipment by the Connecticut state police.

Police officials have defended the acceptance and use of such free equipment as essential in hazardous situations such as reports of active shooters, in rescuing people in danger from criminals or disasters like floods and hurricanes.

“Police departments need to be able to respond to some very violent situations,” Mello said. But he also said the chiefs of police believe that “you must have procedures and protocols in place so this equipment is used only at the appropriate time and in an appropriate way that’s safe for everyone.”

“We can’t forget there are some very bad people out there,” Mello said. “If we don’t respond, who will?”

In addition to armored vehicles capable of withstanding blasts from land mines, hundreds of military rifles have also been distributed to city and town police departments across the state. Some of those weapons, once front-line firearms in the U.S. Army, also went to Eastern Connecticut State University and Southern Connecticut State University police. Putnam police received eight “riot type” 12-gauge shotguns and similar weaponry went to various other departments in the state.

Documents show that Norwalk has been granted:

  • One mine resistant vehicle, worth $767,360, in October 2019
  • One utility truck, worth $63,894.00, in May 2012
  • Four 7.62 millimeter rifles, each worth $138, in October 2008
  • One 5.56 millimeter rifle, worth $499, in May 1997

 

“We did acquire an armored vehicle some time back, but I do not recall its value,” Kulhawik wrote Tuesday. “We paid only the cost of transport which was minimal.  The vehicle had very few miles and can be easily maintained by fleet mechanics so its ongoing cost is also minimal.”

 

 

 

 

 

Critics of the military surplus program

Calls for police reforms following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have put this surplus military hardware program under scrutiny. Images of helmeted and armored police armed with shields, batons, tear gas and other riot gear — not to mention of similarly dressed and armed lines of national guardsmen and federal officers in Washington, D.C. — have fueled public concerns about militarized law enforcement.

Former Norwalk Mayor Bill Collins objects to the City’s acquisition of the armored vehicle.

“Norwalk’s historic need for such a rescue vehicle has been slim. Much better if the Feds could sell it to China and send us the cash for child care of early childhood education,” Collins wrote.

Other critics cite academic studies, including one from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, that found participation in the 1033 program appeared to cause to an increase in violence and killings by participating police departments.

“When law enforcement looks and acts like a militarized force, it’s not long before they start thinking like a militarized force,” said Tonya Krause-Phelan, a professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. “As a result, they view the public — those they swore an oath to serve and protect — as enemy combatants.”

Congress is moving to curb the give-away of military-grade equipment.

The “Justice in Policing Act” introduced by congressional Democrats last week would limit these military transfers and add oversight and transparency to the 1033 program, requiring law enforcement agencies to have training, and give community notice before participating in the program. And Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is trying to include an end to the program in the next National Defense Authorization Act, a massive defense bill that authorizes spending for all of the Pentagon’s programs.

The 1033 Program was established by an National Defense Authorization Act approved in 1997 and initially approved only for counter-terrorism forces. However, it was eventually expanded to include any law enforcement activity.

President Barack Obama scaled back the initiative in 2015 amid controversy over the police response to protests the previous year following an officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But President Donald Trump reinstated the full program in August of 2017.

Michael Lawlor, who served as former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top criminal justice advisor, said the state considered banning Connecticut police departments from accepting most types of surplus military equipment after the police response to Brown’s death. “But President Obama issued an executive order stopping it,” said Lawlor, now an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven.

Lawlor said there is no need for local or state police to have military-style combat and riot equipment and that their use by police often triggers or escalates violence. He said use of such equipment has an impact both on the public’s perception of police and the perception police officers have of themselves.

“Putting this kind of military equipment in the hands of local police only escalates an already very tense situation and leads to violence,” Lawlor said. “When you show up with riot gear, armored vehicles and helicopters… you’re just asking for violence. It’s going to happen.”

“If you dress up like a gladiator, you’re going to act like a gladiator,” Lawlor said.

He said state and local police in Connecticut refrained from using military hardware in response to recent demonstrations over Floyd’s death and he believes the restrained police approach was one reason why there has been so little violence connected with the protests here.

Lawlor doubts Congress will pass any ban on the transfer of surplus military gear to local police and thinks Connecticut’s General Assembly should act.

“If the Connecticut legislature is coming in for a special session, there is no reason why state lawmakers couldn’t ban the importation of this kind of equipment,” Lawlor said.

 

Norwalk’s vehicle called an asset

“I would agree that if used indiscriminately any specialized equipment such as this could do more harm than good,” Kulhawik wrote Tuesday. “It appears {Lawlor} is referring to using this type of equipment in situations where it is clearly not appropriate. However, I disagree that it has no use in civilian law enforcement.  We have seen numerous occasions across the country and across the state, where the immediate availability of this type of vehicle has saved lives of both citizens and officers in active shooter situations as it allowed officers to reach injured parties.  We look at it as a rescue vehicle and have referred to it as such.  It’s design is well suited for a variety of rescue operations in addition to active shooter situations.  It is also ideal for use in high water and extreme weather such as blizzards and hurricanes etc.. to access homes or businesses that may otherwise not be easily accessible by traditional vehicles.”

Fairfield County police departments have been sharing a Bearcat, an armored vehicle specifically designed for police. The armored vehicle listed can ram through a structure like a tank, and is high-wheeled, which is good for flood rescues.

It’s “a tremendous asset for the city,” Kulhawik said.

 

‘Armored protection needed’ during active shooter situations

Bristol Police Lt. Mark Morello said his department recently acquired a “mine resistant” armored vehicle through the 1033 program.

Morello said the vehicle isn’t intended for things like quelling protests and that the equipment is needed “for a variety of reasons.”

“We need armor protection when responding to an active shooter” or other situations that might put officers or citizens in grave danger, Morello said. It is also useful to rescue people in disasters like blizzards or floods, he said.

Morello said Bristol couldn’t afford to purchase a civilian version of that armored vehicle, which as surplus military equipment is listed as costing more than $65,000, and that the military transfer program should continue.  “Because we can’t afford it, does that mean officers must go in harm’s way?” Morello asked.

Meanwhile, police in the small eastern Connecticut town of Ledyard received 23 military-style semi-automatic rifles from the Pentagon, one for each member of its department.

Chief John Rich, a former member of the Connecticut State Police, said the rifles are similar to civilian police rifles used by many departments across the country and that Ledyard has since purchased its own police rifles to equip its officers.

“I think this program has generally been an asset for law enforcement,” Rich said. He said that other military equipment his small department has received, such as night-vision goggles and high-powered scopes, can be useful in certain situations where there is a chance officers might be in danger.

But Rich added: “I don’t think it would be terribly detrimental to us if that resource wasn’t available.”

NancyOnNorwalk reporters Nancy Guenther Chapman and Harold F. Cobin contributed to this story. The full list of equipment provided to Connecticut police departments is available here.

4 comments

NIZ June 17, 2020 at 11:38 am

local police have no business with military equipment, we are a free country, not a war zone. protect & serve does not support access to military equipment.

Babar Sheikh June 17, 2020 at 11:18 pm

Military industrial complex, we were warned decades ago and we let it keep getting worse. Politicians on both sides should be blamed and shamed for this. Complete sellouts. Police forces are a good start but this excessive spending goes all the way up through the department of defense and CIA.

Joe from Norwalk June 18, 2020 at 3:46 pm

At this rate of wasting OUR tax dollars were going to owe China so many trillions we’ll have Xi Jinping on our dollar bills instead of George Washington.

Where are the Phantom jets we were promised for the CT State police ? (sarc)

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