Police departments say military firepower needed, but Ferguson incident raises questions

photo Members of the Chattanooga SWAT team gather around an armored vehicle outside of a home on Dodson Avenue during a standoff and search for the suspected robber of the Third Street Cricket store in this file photo.

WHO"S GETTING MILITARY GEAR?The New York Times on Aug. 15 published a database showing, county by county for the entire United States, how much military gear has been distributed to local law enforcement since 2006.TENNESSEE• Bledsoe: 5 assault rifles• Bradley: 42 assault rifles, 106 pistols, 1 armored vehicle• Franklin: 13 assault rifles, 22 pistols, 5 shotguns, 8 night-vision pieces, 2 body armor pieces• Grundy: 2 assault rifles• Hamilton: 21 assault rifles, 4 night-vision pieces• Marion: 1 assault rifle, 5 pistols• McMinn: 110 assault rifles, 72 pistols• Meigs: 3 night-vision pieces• Monroe: 20 assault rifles, 10 shotguns• Polk: 4 assault rifles• Rhea: 5 assault rifles• Sequatchie: 10 night-vision piecesGEORGIA• Catoosa: 13 assault rifles• Chattooga: 4 assault rifles, 2 pistols, 9 shotguns• Dade: 4 assault rifles• Walker: 15 assault rifles, 5 body armor pieces, 5 shotguns, 3 night-vision pieces, 1 armored vehicle• Whitfield: 10 assault rifles, 2 pistolsALABAMA• DeKalb: 2 assault rifles, 1 pistol, 137 night-vision pieces• Jackson: 10 assault rifles, 2 pistolsSource: The New York Times

The last time a police officer died in Chattanooga, the gunman was wearing a bulletproof vest and brandishing two guns. Police shot the gunman multiple times with their service weapons, but he didn't go down.

"With the handguns we carry, we could have shot him all day long and it would not have stopped the threat," Chief Fred Fletcher said.

It's times like that when police need military weapons and equipment, Fletcher said. Law enforcement agencies across the nation have upped their firepower to respond to more heavily armed criminals over the years, and when the U.S. military started handing out free high-tech equipment and weapons a couple of decades ago, local law enforcement agencies happily extended their hands.

Now military equipment is housed in police and sheriff's departments of all sizes, with items ranging from assault rifles and grenade launchers to armored vehicles and helicopters, according to recent reports in The New York Times.

Across 20 counties in the Tennessee Valley, North Georgia and Alabama, law enforcement agencies have secured 281 assault rifles, 212 pistols and a large smattering of night-vision equipment, body armor, all-terrain trucks and even motorcycles through the U.S. Department of Defense Excess Property Program since 2006.

But in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Mo., where demonstrations and civil unrest welled up over the police killing of an unarmed black man, the practice of doling out military hardware to cops is under intense criticism.

News photos and video footage have shown police riding in war vehicles and outfitted in paramilitary gear clashing with protesters in Ferguson, raising questions about increased militarization of police.

Local activist Ash-Lee Henderson visited Ferguson last week and said the militarization of local law enforcement is a sign of a deeper cultural problem.

"When I hear that these militarized weapons are needed, what concerns me is that that basically says the police are expecting that everyday people in our city will participate in terrorist action," she said. "Because that's what these militarized weapons were created for in the first place."

Critics say the military equipment has no place on city streets, and that the militarization of local law enforcement agencies encourages officers to think of citizens as the enemy, which can lead to excessive force. Others argue that the military appearance of police strikes fear in citizens, especially among groups that already distrust law enforcement.

Henderson said the streets of Ferguson were still full of law enforcement officers when she visited over Labor Day weekend, but added that they kept their military-style weapons out of sight.

Even President Barack Obama has called for more distinction between military forces and civilian law enforcement, according to The Associated Press. A review of programs that equip local agencies is under way.

Local officials say the military hardware they've been getting isn't for day-to-day activities but for situations in which they find themselves outgunned or under-equipped.

In Tennessee, Coffee County has a mine-resistant armored personnel vehicle, a couple of 2-1/2-ton trucks, a crane, a 10-ton tow truck and a couple of Humvees, along with about 25 assault rifles and some night-vision equipment.

Capt. Frank Watkins -- who said the Times' inventory figures are not accurate for the Coffee County Sheriff's Office -- said the department has gotten more than $3 million in surplus military equipment since the program began in the 1990s. That estimate uses prices for new equipment; present value would be considerably lower.

Much of Coffee's equipment is aimed at patrolling and keeping the peace at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival each June, Watkins said. Watkins envisions a scenario including an active shooter and injured people --the armored vehicle could approach and rescue people without exposing anyone to direct gunfire.

He said off-road motorcycles the department got as surplus are handy for patrolling through festival crowds and other areas not accessible with larger vehicles. Other off-road equipment helped recently in the recovery of a body from a remote, wooded area.

About 80 miles to the east, McMinn County has more than 100 assault rifles and 72 pistols thanks to the program.

Sheriff Joe Guy said the department wound up with so many assault rifles because of a paperwork mix-up.

"We got more than we requested because the first order was late getting here and when we called the military surplus folks, they accidentally sent us another order," Guy said. Some of the extra weapons have since been passed on to the Marion County Sheriff's Office and the Jasper Police Department, he said. Each transfer is documented by a trail of paperwork, so the weapons are still accounted for.

Since nearly every staff member is a sworn officer, the collection of weaponry allows them all to be issued an assault rifle if a worst-case scenario arises, he said.

How agencies use the military gear they've accumulated is critical, Fletcher said. The Chattanooga Police Department -- like many others across the nation -- uses a written threat matrix to determine how to respond to situations.

photo Military vehicles sit in a parking lot behind the Coffee County Sheriff's Department.

The matrix is like a scorecard, Assistant Chief David Roddy said. Everything from the time of day to the suspect's criminal history to the layout of the location receives a numbered score. If that score reaches a certain level, then SWAT is deployed. At lower levels, SWAT may act as an adviser.

"It's not an arbitrary decision," Roddy said.

The matrix is developed from national standards and on-the-job experiences, Roddy said. Sometimes threats are upgraded or downgraded as training or equipment changes, he added. A suspect wielding a knife is not considered as much of a threat now as it was 50 years ago.

Fletcher pointed to the department's response to the National Socialist Rally in Chattanooga in April as proof that the department responds appropriately to events. The neo-Nazi group is well known for sparking violence and riots in the cities it visits.

In Chattanooga, police took to the streets in their normal uniforms -- no riot gear, no shields, no batons -- and even wore their caps to look more friendly and traditional, Fletcher said.

"There are departments who misuse their toys and their skills," he said. "We do not intend to be one of them."

But Henderson said the feel-good talk about community relationships is not good enough.

"We don't just need a topical, friendly relationship with police," she said. "What we need is for police to be demilitarized and for them not to criminalize our community and overpolice our community."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.