published Monday, August 25th, 2014

Jasper police get more military firepower, Humvees

Used military Humvees converted to police use are shown in this file photo.
Used military Humvees converted to police use are shown in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

JASPER, Tenn. — Assault rifles, night-vision goggles and Humvees aren't just for military zones. Some such equipment could be coming to a street near you.

As the White House undertakes a comprehensive review of the government program that supplies police departments with surplus military gear, Jasper is receiving six like-new M-16 assault rifles with the promise of two more in the future.

The department paid a small fee to join the federal government's Department of Defense Excess Property Program.

"It's a good program for a department like us to be able to get equipment that we probably wouldn't have the money to buy," Police Chief Tim Graham said. "We've gotten some pretty nice equipment that didn't cost the town basically anything. We're kind of proud of that."

Graham said he hopes his officers never have to use the weapons. But if they do, "[the rifles] can empty a 30-round clip in three seconds, and they came to us for free."

The assault rifles feature single-shot, semi-automatic and fully automatic modes.

As pleased as Jasper is to receive the surplus military equipment, it arrives as the nation grapples with the question of whether police departments are becoming too militarized. The concerns were sparked by events in Ferguson, Mo., over the past two weeks when police responded to demonstrations over the killing of a black teen with military vehicles and other equipment the department has received from the federal government.

News of the new equipment in Jasper is the latest to arrive, but far from the only equipment received through the DOD program in Tennessee.

The Marion County Sheriff's Department got 25 M-16s and three Humvees through the program recently, officials said.

And next door, in Franklin County, 13 assault rifles, 22 pistols, five shotguns, eight night-vision pieces and two body armor pieces have been acquired through the program since 2006, according to a recent report by the New York Times.

All of the weapons Jasper will get in this cycle are worth about $12,000. The program's fee and the price of shipping the weapons from Ft. Campbell, Ky., were the only costs incurred, Graham said.

"We always like to get new equipment, but as chief, I have to look at the budget and the economic side of it, too," he said. "When you're getting it free, the old chief is double happy."

Alderman Paul West, who is also a police officer in Whitwell, Tenn., said when weapons like these remain in the trunk of a patrol car for long periods of time, they get "rusted, abused and beaten" through no fault of the police officers.

"They're useless in the trunk," he said. "They're one step above nothing."

West suggested city leaders "come up with the money" in the future to purchase electronic weapons racks for the interior of each patrol car at a cost of about $185 each.

The electronic racks allow the rifles to be wired to the car's internal systems, he said, so an officer can simply push a button to unlock it.

"If the electronic part of it fails, it opens with a handcuff key," West said. "So, it's got a manual override to it."

Having immediate access to the weapons could be crucial, he said.

"It's not a whole lot of money, but it will save those high-dollar weapons," West said." It will make them available [to the officers] when they come out of the car. They would be already good to go."

Graham said the weapons are being stored in a secure location and haven't been issued to any of the city's officers yet.

"They will not be issued until all the officers are certified and trained to use them," he said.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will lead a hearing in September into police use of military-style equipment.

But meanwhile, if the government is going to give away valuable equipment that Graham's department can use, he's going to take it. Being a part of the DoD's surplus program has already paid off for Jasper, he said.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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