ELYRIA — Law enforcement in Lorain County has obtained dozens of guns, seven vehicles and other assorted gear through a federal program that provides military hardware to police agencies across the country.
Among the most recent acquisitions are two Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, commonly known as MRAPs, which were awarded to the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office and Lorain police earlier this year.
The U.S. Department of Defense program, known as the 1033 Program, that provides surplus military gear to law enforcement has come under scrutiny as the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., has dragged on after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police earlier this month. Images of heavily armed and armored police using military vehicles to control civilians have prompted a backlash against what many have called the militarization of police.
“We want our law enforcement to be equipped to take on the bad guys, there’s no doubt about it, but do they need a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle for the streets of Lorain?” asked Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh, who also commands the county’s SWAT Team and Drug Task Force, said the vehicles come in handy in certain situations, such as dealing with standoffs or raids on drug dealers who police expect to be armed.
“We use them in very controlled situation like for standoffs,” Cavanaugh said. “You don’t see them out on road patrol.”
In addition to its MRAP, the Sheriff’s Office has received three armored personnel carriers and a utility truck since 2005, according to a database maintained by the Ohio Law Enforcement Support Office, which administers the 1033 program in the state.
The county’s SWAT Team has also received 16 M16A1 assault rifles and other gear, including an explosive ordnance disposal robot over the past eight years.
Cavanaugh said the robot, for instance, is used more for reconnaissance than bomb disposal.
He also said his office plans to return two of the armored personnel carriers now that the Sheriff’s Office has an MRAP at its disposal.
He also said there needs to be moderation. For instance, he said the Sheriff’s Office turned down additional armor plating for its MRAP that would have made the vehicle impervious to rocket-propelled grenades, something he doesn’t expect deputies to encounter in Lorain County.
The Sheriff’s Office isn’t alone in obtaining weapons under the 1033 program.
Police departments in Avon, Avon Lake, Grafton, Lorain, Oberlin and Vermilion have obtained M16A1 assault rifles in recent years.
Avon Lake Police Chief Duane Streator said the six rifles his department obtained have been modified to downgrade them to semiautomatic rifles. He said the guns are kept in the department’s police cruisers and used only when necessary.
He said the 1033 program provides access to gear the police need but without having to pay for it. But he also said that having that equipment means using it responsibly.
“If you have justified the need to have some of that military equipment, the deployment has to be controlled,” he said.
Oberlin police obtained four M16A1 rifles and a Humvee utility truck under the program, but Lt. Mike McCloskey said his department doesn’t plan to use the vehicle in an offensive way. He said for the most part, the Humvee has been deployed during inclement weather to get to places other vehicles can’t go.
He also said that once a leak in the roof is fixed and it gets a new paint job, Oberlin police will begin using the Humvee in parades and at special events as a public relations tool.
“Obviously kids like to see cool police vehicles,” McCloskey said.
Problems like the leaky Humvee roof aren’t uncommon with the gear that is obtained from the military.
Vermilion police Capt. Mike Reinheimer said his department obtained some night vision goggles, but they’ve never worked right. He said part of the deal is taking equipment in an as-is condition.
For instance, he said that four .45-caliber pistols Vermilion received last year had been sitting on a shelf since the 1970s.
None of those pistols have ever been used by police, and neither have half of the M16A1 rifles the department obtained in 2006, Reinheimer said.
Not every police department in the county has gear from the military.
Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely said his department would like to obtain an MRAP and said he thinks the vehicle would come in handy when dealing with situations where there is an active shooter because the bulletproof armor would provide protection as officers deal with the suspect or evacuate civilians.
Whitely also defended the use of heavily armed and specially trained officers who forcefully enter the homes of some suspects.
“It’s common for civilians to have assault rifles, so when we go out to make an arrest and they have weapons like that, they’re going to outgun us, and it’s very dangerous for the officers,” he said.
Elyria defense attorney Kenneth Lieux said he wonders whether the police aren’t the ones escalating tense situations with an overwhelming show of force.
“Does the local police need an M16? What kind of situation do they expect to be in?” Lieux asked.
The problem, Daniels said, is that when police are given the tools of war, they tend to make use of them and that can be at odds with the concept of community policing.
He said police across the country routinely use military-grade equipment and tactics to storm buildings to serve drug warrants.
“They’ve taken all the worst aspects of the drug war and shot it full of steroids,” Daniels said.
He also said that until Brown’s death in Ferguson, criticism of the militarization of police was minimal.
Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer, who oversees a police department that has obtained an MRAP, four M14 rifles and 10 M16A1 rifles under the program, said he doesn’t believe officers in his city are too militarized.
He said the military weapons and tactics are employed only where necessary.
“Do we overuse it? I don’t think we do,” Ritenauer said.
No matter what the equipment, it comes down to how police choose to use it, Reinheimer said.
“We train for the worst, hope for the best and that’s about the only way to do it,” he said.
Military equipment provided to Lorain County law enforcement since 2006 under the federal 1033 Program:
- Avon Lake police: M16A1 rifles (6)
- Avon police: M16A1 rifles (5)
- Grafton police: M16A1 rifles (3)
- Lorain County Metro Parks: Laptop; cold weather overalls (15); frame-mounted pesticide sprayer; hydration system (16)
- Lorain County Sheriff’s Office: Armored personnel carriers (3); battery charger; chemi-luminescent lights (200); M16A1 rifles (16); mine-resistant vehicle; explosive ordnance disposal robot; utility truck
- Lorain police: M14 rifles (4); M16A1 rifles (10); mine-resistant vehicle
- Oberlin police: M16A1 rifles (4); utility truck
- Vermilion police: .45-caliber pistols (4); M14 rifles (2); M16A1 rifles (6); night vision goggles (2)