In the small rural town of Mayberry, Sheriff Andy Taylor didn’t even see a reason to carry a gun while he policed the townspeople in the iconic American television program The Andy Griffith Show.
Of course, that was a television show, and it aired during what some people may argue was a simpler time in America’s modern history — a time when a small-town sheriff in a town like Mayberry would not need a gun except in the most extraordinary circumstances. Others have argued that Taylor didn’t carry a gun in the show because its producers were pushing an anti-gun Communist message.
Whatever the reason, reports of how many small-town law enforcement agencies have now become armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry make it certain that an unarmed sheriff like Taylor would not make a believable character today.
Personal Liberty Digest™ has run a number of stories in recent months that describe increasingly militaristic tactics and armament among local police departments. With the help of organizations like the CATO Institute and its police misconduct website, there have also been stories about law enforcement officers who have fallen short of their promise to “serve and protect” and have abused authority and committed crimes both against individuals and the Constitution.
WIRED’s “Danger Room” blog, in a post yesterday, pointed out that over the past five years through the “Department of Defense Excess Property Program,” small-town law enforcement agencies have increasingly been the biggest beneficiaries of surplus military gear.
Here’s some of what is revealed:
- A 50-officer police department in Oxford, Ala., a town of 20,000 people, has received about $3 million worth of military equipment including M-16s, helmet-mounted infrared goggles and a tank-like armored vehicle called a Puma.
- The Nebraska State Patrol has three amphibious eight-wheeled tanks.
- Police in Lebanon, Tenn., where fewer than 30,000 people live, have acquired $4 million worth of military equipment, including weapons and heavy equipment like bulldozers and truck loaders, as well as an LAV 150 armored car.
- The Fairmont Police Department in northern Georgia, a department that serves about 7,000 residents, received 17,145 items from the military in the past five years.
- Police in Issaquah, Wash., a town of 30,000 people, acquired more than 37,000 pieces of gear.
Two concerns have been raised by critics of the military arming of community police departments:
- Even though this equipment is bought on the cheap, officers in such small communities — much like Sheriff Taylor — seldom find use for tanks and assault rifles that have to be stored and maintained at a cost to the taxpayer.
- Often, the officers who will be operating this equipment once it has been acquired are poorly trained and are sometimes overly eager to use such military weaponry in situations when it could cause more harm than good.
The Defense surplus program was partially suspended in May, when it was revealed that an Arizona police department was caught selling some of the equipment it acquired to non-law enforcement agencies to pad its budget. However, departments still can get grants for military equipment through a Federal anti-terror initiative put in place after the 9/11 attacks. Since its inception, the grant program has racked up nearly $34 billion, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Whether Americans think military equipment in the hands of law enforcement is good or bad, it appears to be here to stay. One increasingly popular military-turned-law-enforcement piece of equipment is the drone. Most of the drones that American law enforcement agencies employ are small and resemble remote control helicopters more than military equipment.
But last year, police in Lakota, N.D., used a Predator drone owned by the Department of Homeland security to conduct the first drone-assisted arrest in the Nation. Rodney Brossart and his family face a number of criminal charges related to a conflict they got into with law enforcement officers after six cows from a neighboring farm wandered onto their 3,000-acre ranch. After refusing to return the cows and a subsequent standoff with police, the drone was launched to watch the movements of Brossart and his family while a SWAT team rushed in to arrest the bunch.
Brossart’s lawyer Bruce Quick argued in court earlier in the month that “the warrantless use of unmanned surveillance aircraft” was unlawful on 4th Amendment grounds. Citing “outrageous governmental conduct, unlawful surveillance, illegal seizures and searches, unconstitutional application of North Dakota law, vindictive prosecution, and other statutory and constitutional injury” the attorney has asked a judge to dismiss charges in the (as far as law enforcement drones are concerned) possibly precedent-setting case. A ruling on whether the charges will be dismissed is expected within the next few days.