Tear gas, riot gear, armored vehicles. The scenes from Ferguson, Missouri have sparked a controversy about how and why local police are using equipment designed for the military.
“I think it’s disastrous on every level,” Peter Kellogg of the American Civil Liberties Union said of the police response in Ferguson.
Two months before Ferguson, the ACLU released a report on what it called the “Excessive Militarization” of police. The group highlighted a federal program which transfers excess military equipment to local police.
Since 1990, the federal government has transferred $4.3 billion worth of military equipment to local police.
What about in Wisconsin? FOX 11 Investigates found that since 2012, 85 police agencies in Wisconsin have taken part in the program. Those agencies have acquired 8,947 items from the military, valued at $22,126,979.98.
- Scroll to the bottom of this story to see the full list of equipment.
“It’s just amazing the stuff you can find on there and it saves you money,” said Lt. Dan Sandberg, commander of the SWAT team with the Brown County Sheriff’s Department.
“Our main objective is public safety. We’re here to protect the public. We have to be prepared and we have to think worst case scenario,” Sandberg said.
The regional SWAT team covers eight counties. Earlier this year, the department ordered a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle or MRAP. Total value: $733,000. But all the sheriff’s department had to pay was shipping. Total bill: $3,900.
“I hope this is a vehicle that never comes out of the garage other than to train with it. That’s what we’re hoping for. We hope we never have to pull that vehicle out,” Sandberg said.
But Brown County is just the tip of the iceberg. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, in the last two and a half years, 24 departments in the state received an MRAP from the military. The list includes Neenah, Appleton and Door County.
It’s not just armored vehicles. Twenty-seven departments ordered M-16s from the military in the last two and a half years. In all, Wisconsin police acquired 288 M-16s.
Sandberg says about a dozen years ago, the Brown County Sheriff’s Department ordered eight automatic AR-15 rifles from the military. He says what would have cost taxpayers $8,000 only cost about $100 because all the department had to pay for was shipping.
When asked why the department needs such high powered weapons, Sandberg replied, “I think people need to pay attention and watch the news, if you read your newspapers, if you take a look at what’s going on out there across the nation, there’s the potential for a violent encounter to happen anywhere.”
Kellogg says the equipment is too much.
“Do they need M-16s? Do they need these semi-tank armored vehicles? It seems to me clearly not,” he said.
When asked whether police should try to have the best equipment, Kellogg responded, “Well, how many tanks do you need in Northeast Wisconsin? Suppose we have one armored vehicle. How often do we have a sniper? How often do a place where people are shooting at police where they need armor? If they have that need they should definitely have that. If we had one vehicle for Northeast Wisconsin wouldn’t that be enough?”
“My answer to that is, as a citizen, what is your prescribed time frame for a response for one of these vehicles? Do you want one of the vehicles in a matter of minutes or do you want to wait an hour and a half?” said Colleen Belongea, a law enforcement trainer at Fox Valley Technical College.
Belongea spent 22 years as an officer in Green Bay and says the program makes perfect sense.
“The idea is if we can offer an additional service to help keep our citizens safe, why wouldn’t we increase our fleet? Why wouldn’t we increase our options?” Belongea said.
But Kellogg questions how the military equipment influences decision-making for officers.
“It puts in the mind of police officers, we’ve got all this fancy equipment to get the bad guys and the bad guys are out there and we need to get them,” he said.
It turns out, most of the equipment going to local departments, isn’t very fancy. The armored vehicles and high-powered weapons get most of the attention. But most of the equipment is pretty basic, things like gloves, goggles and wrenches.”
Sandberg says Brown County has received three other vehicles from the military, 10 laptop computers, car jacks and plastic hand cuffs. All items the department would buy anyway.
“The taxpayers have already spent this money at the federal level. This is equipment that’s just sitting there not being used. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. Why not put that equipment down at the local level?” Sandberg said.
Kellogg says he’s not against the entire program. It just depends on what type of equipment you’re talking about.
“Do we need a Sherman tank just because they don’t need it anymore?” Kellogg asked. “Take the engine out and put it in a park. Let it be a monument. Otherwise, recycle it. Melt it down. Do something useful with it. But don’t put it on our streets.”
“The Brown County Sheriff’s Office needs this equipment because we need to be prepared the worst case scenario,” said Sandberg.