Police weigh Trump order on military equipment

MONTPELIER — Heavy-duty military equipment, including armored vehicles and grenade launchers, may soon be available again to Vermont police departments after the Trump administration revoked an Obama-era ban on their distribution — but some municipal agencies say they aren’t interested.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday to fully reinstate a program that allows police departments to obtain surplus military gear from the Pentagon.

That program was substantially scaled back by President Barack Obama in January 2015 after police in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to civil unrest with military-style gear in 2014.

“The recommendations issued pursuant to Executive Order 13688 do not reflect the policy of the executive branch,” Trump’s new order reads. “All executive departments and agencies are directed, as of the date of this order and consistent with Federal law, to cease implementing those recommendations and, if necessary, to take prompt action to rescind any rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies implementing them.”

The Obama administration, after review by a working group, created a list of prohibited equipment that would no longer available to police. Another list of controlled equipment required police agencies to show a specific need before it was handed over.

The prohibited equipment included armored vehicles on tracks and other weaponized vehicles, rifles and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, and grenade launchers. The controlled equipment included specialized firearms, aircraft, explosives and riot gear. Most rifles, night vision and other gear were still available.

The Obama administration began recalling equipment on the prohibited list already distributed to police in 2016.

Hot debate

The executive order signed by the president Monday again highlights a program that was hotly debated following the unrest in Ferguson.

Police agencies across Vermont have utilized the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 Program in the past, collecting more than a dozen Humvees, 150 assault rifles, night vision goggles, ballistic armor and more.

Vermont State Police previously obtained a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection vehicle, or MRAP, through that program. The MRAP vehicles were used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect them from improvised explosive devices. VSP also received dozens of military-style rifles.

Scott Waterman, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday that DPS Commissioner Thomas Anderson was reviewing the impact of the executive order and was not yet able to comment.

Rebecca Kelley, spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Scott, said the governor’s office was also not prepared to comment.

In Vermont, police departments formerly worked with the Vermont National Guard to obtain equipment through the program. But 1st Lt. Mikel Arcovitch, a spokesman for the Vermont National Guard, said it has not run the program in Vermont since January 2015.

It was not immediately clear where police departments in Vermont will now turn when applying for surplus military products.

‘Bad idea’

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he strongly disagrees with the president’s executive order. He said the response by police in Ferguson, which included heavily armored vehicles and high-powered firearms, essentially “created a warzone scene.”

“It’s a really bad idea. We need more emphasis on community policing and to have every department get, essentially, leftover military equipment is a bad idea,” he said. “I don’t believe that this military equipment should be dispersed widely to police departments. What the president is doing, I think, is very bad for policing.”

Rep. Peter Welch

The issue highlights an ongoing debate within the policing community about how best to protect the public. Welch said some favor community policing and favor building relationships between police and the public.

For others there is an “emphasis on getting the most powerful equipment as a show of force,” Welch said.

“Obviously, President Trump is coming down on that side,” he said.

Welch acknowledged “you can imagine there might be some situation where you would need the different equipment, but that has to be last resort.”

“It’s best that that be under the control of the State Police,” he said.

Congress could pass legislation to control the flow of such hardware, but it would be unlikely to pass in the current political environment and the makeup of the House and Senate, Welch said.

David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the senator understands the 1033 Program “helps many police agencies, including several in Vermont, work within tightly constrained budgets.”

But “that benefit must not come at the risk of eroding the trust of a community in its law enforcement agencies,” he said.

“The limited restrictions President Obama placed on military equipment transfers focused on weapons intended for the battlefield,” Carle said. “(Leahy) believes that President Trump is clearly mistaken if he believes equipping police officers with the most sophisticated tools of war without any constraints will keep our communities and our streets safer.”

Leahy “expects that participating Vermont law enforcement agencies will use the 1033 program responsibly, that they will work closely with their local communities to ensure that this relationship is not strained and that any received equipment is appropriate and used appropriately,” Carle added.

Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos, who has led the capital city’s police department since 2007, said he has never accepted the type of equipment banned by the Obama administration through the program. And all of the department’s rifles and duty weapons have been purchased through its annual budget during his tenure, he said.

Facos said the heavy-duty equipment, like armored vehicles, that will be available again following Trump’s executive order are not necessary in Montpelier.

“I believe they’re where they need to be, and that’s with the state police,” Facos said. “We have no interest or need, at least that I can see in the immediate future, to have any military-type hardware here. We’ve got the appropriate ballistic protection.”

“I do not see an armored vehicle in Montpelier’s future,” he added.

The decision to pursue such equipment will be made by individual agencies in Vermont, Facos said. Some may find that such equipment is needed, he said.

“I hate to say it but there is a real need to have the armored vehicles or high water vehicles,” he said. “These aren’t Humvees that you see in the streets of Baghdad or Kandahar with .50-calibers mounted on top.”

Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said his department has received night vision goggles and weapons in the past. The department has not sought and will not now seek the equipment that Trump is now making available, he said.

“In terms of what had been banned, in terms of the vehicles, it’s certainly nothing that really impacted us,” Kilcullen said. “We are certainly not looking to procure any sort of vehicle that would have been prohibited under ( Obama’s ) executive order.”

Rutland City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen

The Rutland City department will seek assistance from other police agencies, likely the State Police, if the need for heavy-duty armored vehicles arises, Kilcullen said.

“I think in certain circumstances, some of that equipment can be appropriate and necessary,” he said. “I think some of the equipment that had been banned could serve a purpose in some law enforcement situations.”

‘Epidemic’

James Lyall, executive director of ACLU of Vermont, said his organization remains concerned about the militarization of local police forces, including through the 1033 Program.

There is an “epidemic of police violence in this country” that is “disproportionately targeted at people of color,” he said.

“It is the exact opposite of the direction we should be headed in,” Lyall said. “It makes no sense from a policy standpoint to be doubling down on a program that only adds to the kinds of police militarized responses and violence that we’ve seen going back to Ferguson and before.”

He called on local and state elected officials to be mindful of what police agencies in Vermont are seeking, and how they plan to deploy equipment they obtain.

“It’s really important for state and local policymakers to be aware of what local police departments are doing and what technologies they are using,” Lyall said. “There are many reasons why state and local policymakers may want to consider ensuring that their communities do not become militarized police zones.”

As Vermont is one of the safest states in the country, he said, such military gear is “really unnecessary.” The issue “should become a priority” for local policymakers if departments in Vermont begin to seek such equipment, he said.

“We all need to prioritize the monitoring and acquisition of technologies by local police, and the ACLU will continue doing that,” Lyall said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the public could understandably be concerned about the militarization of police. But the decision to obtain heavy-grade military equipment rests at the local level for municipal police agencies.

“Whether or not the Bennington Police gets vehicles or not is open to the Select Board, in my view,” he said.

Sears said equipment obtained by the Vermont State Police could be of interest to lawmakers, but he does not plan to seek legislation blocking the acquisition of such equipment.

“I don’t see any need to take action,” he said. “I certainly would be interested in what the policies at the Department of Public Safety will be.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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