West Virginia police receive assault rifles, military equipment through Department of Defense program

By By Erin Beck
Staff writer

The McDowell County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t had to use its MRAP, a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle designed for military use, since it acquired it several months ago, according to Sheriff Martin West.

But because it was loaned for free from the Department of Defense, West said, he couldn’t turn it down.

“It’s pretty awesome if you see it,” he said. “You can go about anywhere, even through high waters. It’s so big. It weighs 4-6 tons.”

The MRAP is one of nearly 2,000 pieces of military equipment and supplies police agencies in West Virginia have received since 2006 as part of a Department of Defense program to transfer surplus military equipment to police agencies, according to a New York Times report.

Items loaned range from flashlights and gym equipment to grenade launchers, which were sent to Cabell and Berkeley counties, and assault rifles.

More than 500 firearms were transferred to West Virginia as part of the program since 2006.

In 2013 alone, about $450 million worth of property was transferred to law enforcement nationwide.

The program has drawn scrutiny recently after police in riot gear met protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, with tear gas and armored trucks.

The activists in Ferguson have been protesting the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot to death by a white police officer.

West said the MRAP could be used to rescue or send supplies during flooding or during drug busts.

“When you deal with a county that’s got a lot of drugs, you never know what you’re going to face,” he said. “If it’s a bigger situation and we want to take it, we have it available. We don’t parade up and down the road and try to terrorize anyone or put fear into them. We are the police, and we’re the ones that want to keep peace, but you never know what you’re going to face when you’re dealing with criminals.”

West said a coal company donated the funds to have the MRAP hauled in.

“I don’t think it sends the message that we’re against the public,” he said. “We’re against crime. Our main objective is to stop crime and be fair and do an honest day’s work . . . . Sometimes, things happen like they did in Ferguson and it gives everyone a bad name, but every situation is different.”

The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department obtained three semi-automatic rifles and three shotguns through the program, and a relatively weakly armored military base-security vehicle built in the 1970s through the state surplus system.

The department also has a Bearcat, an 8-ton armored vehicle, which was not obtained through the program. The department paid $286,000 for it in 2013.

It is used for defensive and rescue purposes only, according to Kanawha County Sheriff John Rutherford.

“Basically, what we have is a vehicle that has no weapons on it,” Rutherford said. “We use it as a defensive vehicle, to protect our officers when they’re being shot at. It’s basically a bullet-proof vehicle.”

Rutherford said the last two sheriff administrations did get rid of many military surplus items acquired by previous administrations.

“We pretty much keep it to what we need,” he said.

Kanawha Sheriff’s spokesman Cpl. Brian Humphreys said the department has had to use the Bearcat to safely evacuate neighbors during an active shooting, as well as when executing high-risk search warrants at residences with known violent drug dealers.

“A lot of people are apprehensive when they see an armored vehicle and may associate it with the military, even though there’s a civilian law enforcement application,” he said. “We don’t use armored vehicles like the military uses them.”

Berkeley County received seven shotguns, six military-style rifles and a grenade launcher, according to the New York Times report.

Many of the military assault rifles were fully automatic and have been returned as the department purchases its own military-style equipment, according to Sheriff Kenny Lemaster.

Lemaster said the sheriff’s department is trading the fully automatic weapons in for semi-automatics.

“We would be out-gunned if all we carried were handguns,” he said. “Just about every hunter has a semi-automatic rifle . . . . It’s kind of like the old saying, you don’t take a knife to a gun fight. You don’t take a handgun to a bunch of guys that have rifles.”

The grenade launcher is used to deploy tear gas, not grenades.

The last time it was used was more than a year ago, when a man barricaded himself in his home in an effort to hold his wife hostage, although she escaped.

Lemaster said the man, who was threatening police with weapons, ran and hid in the woods after police deployed tear gas through the windows using the grenade launcher.

“It’s a less-lethal way to control the situation, instead of using deadly force,” he said.

Without the grenade launchers, officers would have had to get closer to the house to deploy the tear gas.

“It would have put the officers more in jeopardy, having to get in closer to disperse the gas,” he said.

The Gazette asked Lemaster if the use of military weapons could make community members feel as though the police could be an enemy.

“They shouldn’t, because it’s for their own good,” he said.

West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said he didn’t have available a list of all military surplus equipment received by the State Police but said the program had mostly been used for “supportive operations” supplies, rather than combat-related equipment.

He listed examples like furniture, exercise equipment, sleeping bags, tools and construction equipment.

The State Police did acquire 16 Humvees from the program.

Messina said the State Police turned down the Department of Defense’s offer of an MRAP and Vietnam-era M-16s.

When asked if the State Police didn’t request weapons over the past several years because it already had military-style assault weapons, Messina said the department does utilize that type of equipment, mainly for special response teams, and has AR-15s.

“I don’t know that we would discuss in any great detail what we have,” he said. “There’s always that concern you don’t want to tell the bad guys too much.”

Reach Erin Beck at Erin.beck@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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