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(News-Press.com) - Law enforcement agencies all over the country — including Southwest Florida — have acquired hundreds of assault rifles and military vehicles through a government program.

And the American Civil Liberties Union is concerned.

A June study by the ACLU determined policing has become "excessively militarized" due largely to this program, which has almost no public oversight.

Law enforcement agencies say the equipment saves taxpayer money and provides departments with guns, vehicles or other equipment they would need to buy anyway, but for less. For example, the Fort Myers Police Department acquired a $700,000 military vehicle in March for $3,451.

How they get it

The Defense Department's 1033 program has allowed police to acquire paramilitary weapons and vehicles at a highly discounted rates.

Agencies pay for shipping and repairs of the equipment, resulting in huge savings.

The National Defense Authorization Act in 1996-97 "authorized the transfer of excess DOD personal property to federal and state agencies in the execution of law enforcement activities to include counterdrug and counterterrorism missions," according to Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman Mimi Schirmacher. Defense Logistics Agency has managed this program since 1995, she said.

This runs the gamut of equipment, including office materials, computers, aircraft, boats, vehicles and weapons, Schirmacher wrote in an email.

More than $4.3 billion worth of property has been transferred since the program's inception, according to the Defense Logistics Agency's website. About $450 million worth of property was transferred in 2013.

Guns and vehicles

Data acquired by The News-Press shows Cape Coral and Fort Myers police departments, as well as Lee, Collier and Charlotte county sheriff's offices, have acquired hundreds of M-16 assault rifles through this program.

Three of those agencies — Fort Myers police, Collier and Charlotte County Sheriff's offices — also acquired a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAPs) vehicle, nine-foot tall, 20-ton armored military vehicles.

The Cape Coral Police Department has acquired 58 M-16 rifles from the program, Sgt. Dana Coston confirmed via email. "However, only a fraction of these are deployed, as officers have begun replacing them with personally owned, modern rifles."

Those 58 rifles cost the department $50 each, according to Coston. A similar rifle, the AR-15, sells for upward of $1,000.

"Like any firearm, long guns are used in situations where an officer believes that they or another is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death," Coston said in an email. Hostage situations, active shooters, barricaded subjects and high-risk car stops are just some examples where police may need these rifles, he said

The Collier County Sheriff's Office acquired an MRAP in May and 371 M-16 rifles through the program, Aviation Lt. Mark Cherney said. That rifle amount is the second-highest in the state, trailing only the Florida Highway Patrol (415), according to information provided by the Florida Department of Management Services, which regularly checks inventory on equipment acquired through the program.

This program saves the taxpayers money, Cherney said. The equipment has been deemed surplus and would be destroyed if not acquired by law enforcement.

"It's still good for someone else to use," he said.

Cherney did not detail why the department would need assault rifles or an armored vehicle, deferring to the sheriff. "Every law enforcement agency has long guns," he said. "They're not machine guns."

There is an application process for the program, but it has "very few restrictions" at the state level, said Kara Danksy, author of the June ACLU report titled "War Comes Home."

Schirmacher said agencies must meet criteria to receive a MRAP. Justification of use, geographical and multijurisdiction use and ability of an agency to pay for repairs are some of these criteria, Schirmacher wrote in an email.

Fort Myers police spokesman Lt. Victor Medico declined to comment for this story.

Regulation call

"The use of paramilitary vehicles escalates violence," Danksy said.

They are not being used in "emergency scenarios," but low-level incidents, such as serving warrants, she said. "It unnecessarily, aggressively undermines public safety."

War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, a study from 2011-12 analyzed more than 800 SWAT deployments by 20 law enforcement agencies across the country. It shows that SWAT teams were sent in 62 percent of the time during drug searches, and 79 percent of the time they were dispatched were to serve search warrants. The SWAT teams typically use the armored vehicles during their responses.

The ACLU would like to see constraints on the program at the local and federal levels, Dansky said. Civilian oversight boards or other measures could regulate the program.

There is a civilian's police review board for Fort Myers, but a representative said they deal mostly with internal affair investigations and not policy or equipment use.

Law enforcement is by no means united on this issue, Dansky said. Many have come out against police becoming militarized, saying it harms public perception and trust of police, she said. "We are not on opposite sides," she said of the ACLU and police.

"There are a lot who agree we need to maintain a distinction between police and the military."

Glossary of terms

  • 1033: A program by the Defense Department that allows law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military equipment at a discounted rate.
  • AR-15: An assault rifle manufactured by Colt.
  • M-16: The U.S. military adaptation of the AR-15. Also used by law enforcement.
  • MRAP: Stands for mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle. A large armored vehicle developed for use in the war in Iraq to curb improvised explosive device casualties. Costs about $700,000. Can be used by police during emergency scenarios, such as natural disasters or barricaded, armed individuals.
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