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Jim Kenyon: Military toys for the boys in blue aren’t as fun as they sound

  • A New Hampshire State Police officer, left, two Hartford officers, second from left, and right, and a Lebanon officer, second from right, sweep a parking lot on the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center campus for signs of unusual activity following a shooting at the hospital in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, September 12, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A police officer clears a driver to leave the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center grounds during a search for a gunman who shot a patient in the hospital in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 12, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Police officers from Lebanon, left, Hartford, middle, and New Hampshire State Police, patrol a parking lot at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., following a shooting in the hospital on Sept. 12, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/20/2020 10:02:42 PM
Modified: 6/20/2020 10:02:40 PM

Who can say no to free stuff? Certainly not cops in the Upper Valley when the freebies are military-grade weaponry and gadgets.

Through a Pentagon giveaway program, Lebanon police acquired nearly three dozen M16 semi-automatic assault rifles in 2017. That same year, Hartford police grabbed 20 “infrared illuminators,” which you probably won’t find in the household flashlight aisle at Home Depot. Not to be outdone, Thetford police scooped up three “night vision sniper scopes,” valued at $5,000 apiece, in 2018.

But in Upper Valley law enforcement ranks, Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak is the going away winner in the if-it’s-free-I’ll-take-it contest. Over the years, his department has acquired, among other things, assault rifles, night-vision goggles and a $15,000 thermal sight, an optical device that detects people and objects giving off heat in the dark.

In 2014, Bohnyak snagged the ultimate in big-boy toys: a pair of Humvees, painted in desert camo, valued at $91,000 each. They’d come in handy when responding to all-terrain vehicle complaints in remote parts of the county, the sheriff said.

When I stopped by the Orange County Sheriff’s office last week, the utility vehicles were parked behind the building. One had a flat tire. “I don’t know if they’ve ever been used,” a sheriff’s deputy told me.

Since the 1990s, the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 program has made surplus military equipment available to state and local law enforcement agencies.

But in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the black man who died as a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes while three other officers stood by, many cities were overwhelmed by protests and a police response that often resembled a war zone. Clashes between the two sides often turned violent, including on the part of police clad in military gear.

Now, both Floyd’s death — broadly condemned by the police community — and the militarized response to the protests are under a microscope.

While demonstrations against Floyd’s death in the Upper Valley have been void of violent clashes, police departments here nevertheless have their share of free military gear — though some law enforcement officials are beginning to question whether chasing after the Pentagon’s hand-me-downs is even worth the paperwork.

According to the 1033 program’s website, the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act paved the way for local and state police agencies to acquire federal military property for “bona fide law enforcement purposes — particularly those associated with counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities.”

In the early 2000s, Norwich police procured three M16 assault rifles to combat what it described in its Pentagon application as a “transient drug problem” and “marijuana cultivation,” Seven Days , the Burlington-based weekly, later reported.

More than 8,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies, including a dozen in the Upper Valley, have received $7.4 billion worth of military supplies since the program’s inception. (The figure could be a bit inflated, considering the Pentagon has been known to pay $600 for toilet seats.)

Items range from $14 cartridge magazines (Grantham police received 50 in 2018) to a $658,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP for short, that Vermont State Police acquired in 2014. Three years ago, state police added two Pacboc robots (valued at $77,000 each) to its paramilitary arsenal. The miniature vehicles were used in Afghanistan and Iraq to detect and defuse roadside bombs, but I’m not sure how effective robots are at rooting out Vermont’s biggest road hazard — potholes.

Much of the equipment and the names of the law enforcement agencies that received it can be found by searching a federal database, found online at www.dla.mil.

Following a string of well-documented cases of police violence across the country in recent weeks, the 1033 program faces growing scrutiny.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, wants Congress to abolish the program. The nonprofit organization’s Vermont chapter is asking the state Legislature to do the same.

“Police militarization is unnecessary and dangerous,” ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall told me in an email. “Giving police military equipment also gives them a green light to use paramilitary tactics with civilians, and that’s exactly what’s been happening for far too long, especially in already over-policed black communities.”

And what’s the argument that police need military hardware to protect and serve?

“It’s a balance,” Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten told me. “It’s important that people don’t feel like they’re being policed by the military. At the same time, it’s important for officers to feel protected when they go into dangerous situations.”

The 1033 program’s popularity took off after 9/11. Some police departments — none in the Upper Valley that I could find — acquired grenade launchers, battering rams and bayonets.

In 2015, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to dial back the program. It came after heavily armed cops in military-style vehicles were seen confronting protesters in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer.

By April 1, 2016, police departments across the country had returned 138 grenade launchers, 126 tracked armored vehicles and 1,623 bayonets, the Pentagon reported.

But in August 2017, President Donald Trump revived the program, stating he was keeping a promise to allow “local police departments to access surplus military equipment they need to protect our officers and law enforcement agents and save their lives.”

When Richard Mello, previously a police lieutenant in Hollis, N.H., became Lebanon’s police chief in late 2015, the department had “six rifles and a bunch of shotguns,” he told me. “We were behind the times.”

Mello ditched the shotguns, arguing they were no longer useful. Recognizing city budget constraints, he turned to the 1033 program to obtain 34 M16s — one for each officer to call his or her own. “You want to have a rifle you’re comfortable with and have some proficiency with,” Mello said.

From a law enforcement perspective, arming officers with assault rifles is about leveling the playing field. In 2019, the U.S. had 417 mass shootings — in which at least four people were shot, excluding the shooter — reported the nonprofit research group Gun Violence Archives.

In September 2017, a Rhode Island man entered Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon with a concealed weapon that he used to kill his mother, a patient in the intensive care unit.

Arming officers with only pistols or shotguns in active shooter situations, such as the one at DHMC, is “extremely poor tactics,” Mello said. Officers must be able to protect themselves, crime victims and bystanders, he added.

Assault rifles aside, Mello doesn’t seem all that gung-ho on the Pentagon program.

“I don’t like the military look for law enforcement for the reasons we’ve been seeing,” said Mello, who spent 12 years in the Navy.

A lot of police departments want the military’s hand-me-downs because “it’s free,” he said. “For me, it has to have a purpose. What am I going to do with a Humvee?”

Bohnyak, Orange County’s sheriff, is asking himself the same question. In an email last week, Bohnyak told me that he’s attempting to return the Humvees to the feds. The vehicles have “very high maintenance costs and are extremely noisy,” he wrote.

And the $15,000 thermal optical gizmo? “Junk,” he said.

Other law enforcement leaders echoed the sentiment.

Police departments are finding that some equipment, such as night-vision goggles, are “so outdated that you can find better at the local Walmart,” said Capt. William Haynes, of the New Hampshire State Police, who serves as the 1033 program’s state coordinator.

In Hartford, seven of the 20 infrared illuminators, which improve visibility by lighting the interior of dark buildings and dense woods at night, never worked, Kasten said.

When Thetford police ordered three sniper scopes with night vision it wasn’t with the intention that they’d ever be needed in a military-style operation, Chief Mike Evans told me.

After being picked to head up Thetford’s three-officer department in 2015, Evans said he came to the “realization that we do a lot of our operations at night.”

He envisioned attaching the clip-on scopes to officers’ helmets during nighttime searches for a missing child or an older person with dementia who wanders off from home.

Two years after their arrival, the scopes sit in a box inside the police offices at Town Hall. “They don’t work,” Evans said. The scopes were missing essential parts. “It’s like having a car without a motor,” he said.

Not all Upper Valley towns have tapped into the 1033 program.

“I have never been a fan of militarizing police departments by (acquiring) surplus military equipment,” longtime Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin told me in an email. “Quite frankly, we are a town that does not tend to deal with ‘big city’ policing challenges, so that makes it easier to say no to (military) surplus that is tempting to take when you are a department that is trying to outfit SWAT teams.”

John Campbell, a former state senator who represented Windsor County, worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Florida before earning a law degree and moving to Vermont. He’s now executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.

“The goal right now should be to do away with any attempts to militarize our police departments,” Campbell told me. “It sends a really bad message.

“Some things have to change.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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