While most law enforcement agencies in Franklin County don’t have a lot of surplus military arms and equipment, the general feeling among police officials is that it’s better to be equipped to handle threats at the local level.
“The people have to decide,” said Sheriff Gary Toelke. “Do they want us to protect them or someone else? We are the first responders to face a threat.”
In the wake of the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson two weeks ago, followed by demonstrations and rioting, President Barack Obama has called for re-examing the policy of providing surplus military equipment to local police departments. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has called for hearings on the subject.
The sheriff’s office has obtained some military-style equipment for its SWAT team, including a Momba armored vehicle, Kevlar helmets and body armor. The SWAT team also has a number of M-16 rifles “on loan” through the program.
Other police departments in the county, however, haven’t purchased such items.
Washington Police Chief Ken Hahn said while his department hasn’t obtained much surplus equipment, other than a couple of computers, he agrees with the program and believes it should continue.
“Since 9/11, we are on the front line if a terrorist attack occurs,” Hahn remarked. “It’s 100 percent wrong to dismantle this program.
“We need to keep this program to make sure that civilian law enforcement officers are equipped to handle these situations,” Hahn said.
Sheriff Toelke agrees.
“If a foreign or domestic terrorist threat hits the U.S. again, local law enforcement will be the first to respond. We need to be equipped to deal with that,” Toelke said.
Lt. Kyle Kitcher of the Union Police Department said his office has received military surplus supplies in recent years.
The department has about 30 backpacks and some medical supplies that allowed the department to compile some emergency kits that were given to fire department and ambulance district personnel.
He said he doesn’t think giving armored vehicles, body armor and other military supplies to local law enforcement is unreasonable in this day and age.
“If there was a mass shooting, wouldn’t you rather be in an armored vehicle than a Volkswagen?” he asked. “Anything we can get to keep our guys safe is worthwhile.”
St. Clair Police
St. Clair Police Chief Bill Hammack said he is not doing anything differently with his officers in reaction to what happened in Ferguson nor is he pursuing getting any kind of additional equipment of any kind. He said his budget has limited the purchase of such equipment.
“I haven’t pursued getting any additional equipment in the past nor will I now,” Hammack said.
As far as he and his officers, “We haven’t changed any of our practices.”
Hammack mentioned the mutual aid agreement in place with other departments in the county and the sheriff’s office that all will respond to help each other in case of an emergency, a disaster or a shooter incident of any kind.
Some officials have pointed out that most of the equipment used by police in Ferguson isn’t military issue. Rather it was privately manufactured.
“Now, more than ever, with what’s going on overseas, we need to be prepared,” Toelke said.
Members of the county’s SWAT team assisted other police agencies at Ferguson three nights last week and returned there again Monday night.
Toelke said while they were there they had a chance to talk to some demonstrators. Some were “very nice,” and expressed support for law enforcement, he said.
However, there has been a “bad element” that infiltrated the marchers which has posed a challenge for law enforcement, Toelke noted. “You can’t say good guys over here and bad guys over there.”
When officers are attacked with bricks and Molotov cocktails they have to be able to protect themselves, the sheriff said.
“People think nothing like this will happen out here, but if you study terrorist groups, there can be a substantial threat to rural areas,” Toelke said. “Is it worth taking the chance to reduce our firepower or is it better to be prepared?”