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Police ‘Militarization’ On Display Locally but Law Enforcement Officials Say Public Benefits

As a result of federal defense and homeland security programs, area police agencies have received helicopters, gas masks and a BearCat — at no cost to ‘taxpayers’

The so-called “militarization of police” has gained increasing attention across the nation as the federal government has begun equipping local law enforcement agencies to help them respond to major crisis situations, including possible terrorist attacks.

The debate emerged locally in April when Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies and other police officers used a tank, tear gas and other military gear during the Deltopia rioting in Isla Vista.

But the subject erupted as a national controversy last month after an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Riots, looting and mass protests followed the shooting, and local law enforcement brought out tanks, body armor, tear gas and military equipment to control the mayhem.

The two incidents have prompted questions on whether police are using — or overusing — such equipment properly when responding to events.

How local police agencies — large and small, and urban, suburban and rural — came to possess such gear is the result of federal grant programs in which the Defense, Homeland Security and Justice departments provide them with funding, military equipment, counterterrorism tools and other assistance.

Since 1997, the federal government — through the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services 1033 program — has handed out more than $5.1 billion in military hardware to local police forces. In 2013 alone, more than 8,000 agencies received nearly $500 million worth of equipment.

The Santa Barbara Police Department and the Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff's Department both possess equipment and heavy duty machinery, transferred to them through the federal grants.

“Concerns about the militarization of police appear to be somewhat misguided and misinformed,” Sheriff Bill Brown told Noozhawk. “Equipment obtained under the 1033 program and similar programs allow first-responders to utilize modern technology in our public safety efforts. This is necessary because we live in a changing world.”

Since 1990 when it first began participating in the Pentagon program, the Sheriff’s Department has received items ranging from Band-Aids to helicopters. The agency originally got involved with the program to acquire aircraft. It received a helicopter in 1995 and now has four obtained through the program. Officials say the aircraft have assisted in more than 700 rescues, hundreds of arrests, the location and seizure of millions of dollars in marijuana and other drugs, and in locating hundreds of lost and missing people.

Perhaps the most intimidating piece of Sheriff’s Department equipment, however, is what’s known as “The Bear,” an armored tank vehicle that was not purchased through the federal program but through private donations in 2007. The agency uses the vehicle for tactical deployments to provide ballistic protection for law enforcement and civilians.

The department did acquire a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, known as an MRAP, through the federal government, but has not figured out how or when to deploy it.

As Santa Barbara police SWAT members evacuate a Milpas Street medical clinic in 2011, one team member keeps watch on a second-story apartment where a gunman had been reported. There were no injuries in the incident. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)
As Santa Barbara police SWAT members evacuate a Milpas Street medical clinic in 2011, one team member keeps watch on a second-story apartment where a gunman had been reported. There were no injuries in the incident. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

“The MRAP, like the Bear, provides a platform for protection and will allow us to protect citizens, law enforcement and suspects,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said. “The Sheriff’s Office is always looking at tools that can help us minimize crime and take suspects into custody.

“Our goal always is the protection of life, whether it be victim, law enforcement or suspects.”

The Sheriff’s Department also has purchased 40 mm launchers, used to deploy chemical agents like tear gas, but not through the 1033 program. Hoover said the “beauty of the 1033 program” is that county residents receive the benefits of law enforcement’s use of the equipment, but at no cost to taxpayers.

Brown said night-vision equipment allows public safety officers to operate safely in the dark. Armored vehicles protect officers during critical incidents and help with rescues.

“Without these federal surplus assets, obtained at no cost to taxpayers, members of the Sheriff’s Office, other public safety agencies and the public would be less safe,” he said.

Santa Barbara police also have their share of weapons and equipment obtained through the federal government.

Sgt. Riley Harwood, a department spokesman, said SBPD has received nearly $600,000 worth of equipment from the Homeland Security Grant Program, which provides equipment for surveillance, weapons and advanced training for law enforcement personnel in order to heighten security.

SBPD items include:

 • A $225,000 BearCat

 • $215,000 for a new security fence around police headquarters at 215 E. Figueroa St.

 • 127 gas masks at a cost of $24,856

 • Computer terminals for police patrol cruisers

 • Post-traumatic stress training worth $5,447

Harwood said police have used the BearCat about four times a year since 2009, all for SWAT calls.

“The on-duty watch commander has the discretion to deploy the vehicle at any time,” he said.

Harwood said officers rarely use their gas masks, but this year employed them during the Deltopia rioting and in a January standoff with a man barricaded inside a house in the 800 block of Bath Street.

“Officers can use their gas masks anytime they feel the need,” Harwood said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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