BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Several military tools, like high-powered rifles and Humvees, are showing up in cities across the country and many are ending up in police departments without the public's knowledge.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, it looks like a war zone with police officers in combat gear on top of armored vehicles with assault rifles. Many law enforcement agencies have been responding for the past several days to hundreds of protesters after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, 18. The scenes in Missouri are leading many to worry that America's police departments are becoming too militarized.
Many local police departments and sheriff's offices are arming their men and women with military equipment once used in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of it free from the Pentagon or bought very cheap with grant money from Congress. The New York Times published a study showing the districts where some surplus military-style equipment is going and East Baton Rouge Parish tops the list in Louisiana for assault rifles received. The law enforcement agencies in the parish have received 558 assault rifles through the program.
Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of Louisiana State Police, said his department has purchased military equipment from the Department of Defense since the program began in 2006. The purchases include 225 AR-15 rifles, one mine-resistant vehicle, or MRAP as it's called, and five Humvees. In order for State Police or any local police department or sheriff's office to use any equipment purchased by the Department of Defense, there are specific policies and procedures they have to follow.
"We don't train for our troopers just to jump out of the car and deploy with an AR-15 or a shotgun or pistol," Edmonson said. "It's generally involving a high-risk type situation. In order for someone to use that, a supervisor has to be involved. They have to prove there's a use for that or a need for it and then it's governed by policy and procedure."
Baton Rouge Police Department officials bought an armored vehicle for roughly $100,000 of their own money for the Special Response Team, or SRT, as it's called. In comparison, a bomb resistant truck designed to withstand roadside bombs in Afghanistan was purchased from the Pentagon last year for less than a fifth of that price, at only $15,000. It has not been used yet and is mainly for high-water rescues.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office also bought two Humvees, one armored windshield kit and 21 .45 caliber pistols.
Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said everything his office has is mainly for high-water rescues.
"Unfortunately, we have some areas that receive a lot of high water during the hurricanes and we have to do a lot of rescues, so we just don't have the means to buy something new," Ard explained.
Under the federal program, some of what Ard's office bought includes three Humvees and three helicopters. Ard said choppers that originally cost about $200,000 only cost him $3,000 to $4,000 and when every second counts, those choppers have proven beneficial.
"That deputy can actually take something that may take 45 minutes to an hour to locate by boat and do it within 10 minutes or less. Get people to safety a lot quicker and get emergency personnel to them a lot quicker," Ard added.
Local law officials said they reject the idea that their departments are militarized. Instead, they said, it's everything they need.