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Federal program sends military equipment to WV law enforcement

file photo
The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department acquired this bulletproof “Peacekeeper” truck through the Department of Defense 1033 program in 2010.
file photo
This 1980s-model armored Humvee was refurbished in the early 1990s and obtained by the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office through the Department of Defense’s 1033 military surplus program for free.

West Virginia law enforcement officers have received more than 500 surplus military firearms — including two grenade launchers — through a federal program since 2006, a Daily Mail investigation has found.

The New York Times made public Tuesday a database of military equipment distributed to each U.S. county through the Department of Defense 1033 program from 2006 through May 2014. The data indicates 560 firearms, including M16, XM21, M14, AR15 rifles and riot shotguns, have made their way into the hands of West Virginia law enforcement officers during that time.

The 1033 program has come under scrutiny recently because of the police response to demonstrators protesting the officer-involved shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Police have responded with military vehicles, weapons and uniforms, and their response has been criticized as overly militarized.

Berkeley County received a grenade launcher through the program in 2006, and Cabell County received one in 2008. The database does not indicate the specific agency within a county that received the equipment.

Thirty-four counties in West Virginia have received weapons through the program, though most that received weapons have received fewer than 10. Most notably, Randolph County received 49 AR15 semi-automatic rifles in 2010; Monongalia County has received 20 M16 fully automatic assault rifles and 17 M14 semi-automatic rifles, mostly in 2012 and 2013.

Wood County received 23 M16s between 2006 and 2008. Ohio County received 28 M16s in 2006.

Seventy-seven M16 assault rifles and 104 M14 rifles have been acquired through the program in Kanawha County, though those numbers likely include equipment acquired by State Police.

Michelle McCaskill, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, said out of all of the equipment that goes to local law enforcement through the Law Enforcement Support Office — which administers the program on the federal level — only five percent are weapons.

“LESO transfers of excess DOD personal property cover the full range of items used by the government: office equipment, blankets and sleeping bags, computers, digital cameras, individual clothing and equipment, aircraft, boats, vehicles and weapons,” McCaskill said. “Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) must meet certain criteria to be accepted into the program and all requests for property are screened locally — initially at the LEA, then by a state coordinator, and finally by LESO.”

The state coordinator for the 1033 program in West Virginia is listed as Col. C.R. “Jay” Smithers, State Police superintendent. The State Police have not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Daily Mail Thursday for more information about West Virginia’s 1033 program.

Phone messages left Thursday and Tuesday for Capt. Michael Corsaro, who is listed as a point of contact for West Virginia’s 1033 program, have not been returned.

Lt. Michael Baylous, State Police spokesman, said the State Police have mostly acquired “Humvees, bulldozers and backhoes” through the program. He deferred further comment to Corsaro.

Lawrence Messina, state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman, characterized the amount of military equipment acquired by State Police as “very limited” Thursday, before the national database was made public.

“They were using it for years to buy equipment for support operations,” Messina said. “For instance, within the last three or four years, they’ve bought furniture for the State Police academy, beds for the detachments, washers and dryers, refrigerators for the detachments, cafeteria supplies for the academy, mechanics’ tools, construction equipment like a backhoe and a bulldozer,” he said.

“They’ve gotten forklifts from the program, and they got trucks so they could pick up this stuff and bring it back to West Virginia.”

McCaskill said law enforcement agencies must pay for shipping the items as well as potential storage costs. All excess Department of Defense personal property is shipped “as is,” and it is up to the individual agencies to maintain and repair items.

“Each individual agency that acquires equipment is responsible for training its personnel in the proper use, maintenance, and repair of the excess DOD personal property assigned to it,” McCaskill said.

She said the program has provided $5.1 billion worth of military equipment to state and local law enforcement nationwide. West Virginia has received nearly $9 million worth of surplus equipment since 2006, according to the data; the 560 firearms are valued at $173,916.

The state has also received many vehicles through the program. More than 50 Humvees went to agencies statewide, and McDowell County acquired the state’s only Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle in 2013. By contrast, 345 MRAPs have went to agencies nationwide; Florida has received 31 MRAPs, the most of any state.

Messina said the Department of Defense has offered the State Police more MRAPs, but the State Police turned them down because they would serve “no tactical purpose.”

Kanawha County received a “Peacekeeper” bulletproof Humvee through the program in 2010, but it has since been replaced with a Bearcat armored vehicle the Kanawha County Commission purchased entirely with county funds.

Capt. Sean Crosier, special operations commander and SWAT team member with the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies are “absolutely not” militarized. He said over the years, more high-powered firearms have gotten into the hands of criminals, and police must be prepared for any situation.

“I’ve been around here 27 years now, and many of the drug dealers years ago carried small handguns,” Crosier said. “Nowadays, they carry larger-caliber handguns and automatic weapons. It’s a much different world even than when I started.

“People are very dangerous,” Crosier said. “Especially now that we have extremely dangerous drugs — we’ve got bath salts, heroin, methamphetamine, just to say a few — and people also aren’t in their right mind.

“We have to be prepared for the worst, but we always hope for the best.”

He said Kanawha County’s SWAT team typically responds with AR15 rifles, ballistic eyewear, helmets and shields, Kevlar vests and camouflage uniforms, all designed to protect against gunfire. He said the Bearcat can be used when responding to an active gunman to get officers safely closer to the situation; when serving a warrant on a possibly dangerous suspect, it can be used to get officers quickly to the suspect’s door.

“If he’s believed to be armed, if he has a violent history, a criminal history, we would use the Bearcat to deploy our officers close to the scene so they wouldn’t be compromised,” Crosier said. “Of course, if something terrible happened and someone got shot, we would be right there to be able to extract that person and get them medical help.”

Crosier said the Bearcat is purely a defensive vehicle; it doesn’t have weapons mounted on it. He said such a vehicle would only be deployed in a crowd control situation if officers were in danger from members of the crowd. Although he said he hadn’t seen many news reports out of Ferguson, he said he believed police’s use of large, bulletproof vehicles was justified.

“They’re throwing rocks, they’re shooting at the police, they’re throwing Molotov cocktails,” Crosier said. “I think if the police respond in armored vehicles, riot gears, that’s appropriate because they’re using that gear for the protection of themselves.”

He said sheriffs get military-style training for certain formations, such as searching for a subject in a forested area, because such training keeps officers safe. Otherwise, he does not believe the police force in Kanawha County is militarized.

“I think the term ‘military’ may be used too strongly when it comes to citizen responses, but it’s just the technique, maybe,” Crosier said. “It’s not that we’re going to send in air strikes. It’s just that type of training that works in an urban environment that keeps people safe.”

CORRECTION: Corrections have been made to previous data that did not take into account shotguns acquired through the 1033 program. Also, numbers for Wood, Cabell and Kanawha counties were corrected.

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