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NC police expect few impacts from military surplus changes

Posted May 18, 2015

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— State law enforcement officials say they're not likely to see much of an impact from the Obama administration's changes to a program that for decades has distributed military surplus gear to local police and sheriff's offices.

President Barack Obama announced Monday that the so-called 1033 program would place tighter controls on certain types of armored vehicles, weaponry and other military-style equipment. The announcement comes months after mounting national criticism over the program, a federal review that recommended better tracking and a multi-agency policing task force that found overuse of military equipment could undermine trust in police.

"Unfortunately, across the country, there's been some abuses in law enforcement agencies," George Erwin, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Police Chiefs, said of the program. "I think what we're seeing is a reaction to some of these abuses."

Effective immediately, the federal government will no longer provide armored vehicles that run on a tracked system instead of wheels, weaponized aircraft or vehicles. Firearms .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage uniforms are also off-limits, and the federal government is exploring ways to recall prohibited equipment law enforcement agencies have already received.

Erwin said he figures the changes won't have much of an effect on local law enforcement in North Carolina.

"I don't know of anybody who wants a .50-caliber submachine gun," he said. "I don't see much use for that in civilian law enforcement."

A few agencies in North Carolina have received some of the newly banned equipment. The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority Police Department, for example, received two tear gas grenade launchers in 2010 it decided to send back this year.

The Wake Forest Police Department received camouflage uniforms in the early 1990s that officers no longer use. But echoing Erwin, town spokesman Bill Crabtree said the changes aren't likely to have much of an impact on the force.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety, which implements the federal program on the state level, is still waiting details on the implementation of the new rules, spokesperson Pam Walker said. But she said federal controls on some equipment have already tightened.

"As North Carolina’s manager of the program, [Law Enforcement Services Section] has set as its highest priority that all tactical equipment obtained through this program is properly accounted for and that all policies and procedures are followed," Walker said in an email.

Obama's new rules also create a controlled list of other equipment provided under the program, such as Humvees, manned aircraft and riot gear. To receive these items through the program starting in October, police will need more training, better data collection and the approval of their local governing body.

A few years back, the Chapel Hill Police Department used the program to acquire an armored truck. Lt. Joshua Mecimore said they've never actually deployed it and use it primarily for training. He said they haven't received anything else from the program for several years, so officers won't see much change under the new rules.

"It's not going to mean anything to us," Mecimore said.

While Erwin said he sees little need for half-track trucks or weaponized aircraft for police officers, he said some law enforcement personnel could make use of equipment on the new controlled list – and they can do it responsibly.

"Having another layer of accountability when it comes to a Humvee, that's a different situation. I have no problem with that," he said. "You have to justify the need."

Excess property Small police agencies among top recipients of military gear

In North Carolina, many of the largest recipients of equipment are smaller departments that also receive millions of dollars worth of everything from duffel bags to desks. In some cases, police chiefs say, these surplus supplies – provided free of cost – have kept their agencies afloat and allowed them to keep serving the public.

Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the North Carolina Sheriff's Association, said that, although the impact of the new restrictions "remain to be seen," it's likely to remain a useful program to police and sheriff's departments.

"Generally, the 1033 program has been a very valuable asset to law enforcement agencies in North Carolina to provide them with tools they need to carry out their duties and save the taxpayers of our state untold amounts of money," Caldwell said.


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