Controversy Surrounds Police Use of Military Gear

Amid mounting unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where an officer shot and killed an unarmed teen last week, questions swirl about the use of military gear in local police departments.

Michael Brown’s death has sparked outrage across the country, and citizens are calling for police to ditch their body armor, assault rifles and military-style vehicles in an effort to prevent a similar incident from happening anywhere else.

But police say it’s an important program.

West Hartford police have recently inherited a grenade launcher now used to shoot tear gas, and department spokesman Lt. Ted Stoneburner said a similar device was used during a 2004 standoff in Newington, when an officer was shot and killed.

“It was a very essential part of what we were doing at that scene,” he explained.

In addition to the grenade launcher, West Hartford police have also acquired M16 rifles for their SWAT team, winter weather gear and emergency medical kits through a federal program that allows law enforcement to purchase surplus military equipment.

Police also point to the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout during which two suspects with automatic weapons fired more than 1,100 rounds at police armed with handguns and shotguns. They argue that law enforcement needs to be prepared to deal with heavily armed suspects.

“Without that, there are a lot of departments that don’t have the funding to get the proper equipment, and you want your officers to have the best equipment available,” Stoneburner said.

Attorney David McGuire, of American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, agrees that the program may have its benefits but says
police departments should inform the public of the military items in their cache.

“There are departments that are using this equipment appropriately. Our concern is that there is no transparency and oversight,” McGuire said.

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