Nationwide intrigue over police use of military-grade equipment sparked a major response in Connecticut this week, culminating in a comprehensive report on local stockpiles and a visit to New Haven City Hall from U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Chris Murphy.
Just days after the Hearst Connecticut Media Group profiled 70 police forces in Connecticut, detailing the acquisition of items ranging from first-aid kits to grenade launchers, Blumenthal and Murphy met in the Elm City to review military surplus policy initiatives. Currently backed by a federal mandate, the military delivers weapons, supplies and vehicles to city and state law enforcement agencies through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program. According to the Hearst report, the Yale Police Department received $354,984.47 in military equipment.
“Many of the items we acquired will be helpful for responding to mass casualty or other emergency management uses,” said Yale Police Department chief Ronnell Higgins. “My decision to order equipment is made to support or sustain existing programs or … to support emergency response.”
Despite the staggering overall worth of the supplies involved, the 1033 Program is designed to provide these items free of charge, and Yale did not pay for its equipment. Though Yale acquired the items for free, Higgins said that the special nature of the items that he orders — such as medical supplies, firearm accessories and night-vision devices — mean they are used sparingly.
Police forces do have the option of using their own funds to purchase additional pieces of equipment, but none of the YPD, the New Haven Police Department and Hartford’s Police Department have exercised this ability. In fact, some police forces, like the NHPD, even decline the free federal provisions, said NHPD spokesman David Hartman.
The Hearst report indicates that the YPD received several items during the spring, including a laser range finder and two static power inverters, respectively valued at $20,501 and $26,724.96 per unit.
Hartford Police Department Deputy Chief Brian Foley said that his force, with its donated supplies worth $858,909.91, has taken a similar approach to the YPD’s, recognizing that publicly using armored vehicles and high-caliber firearms can have strong psychological effects on the citizens they aim to serve. Though the department owns M16 rifles and military pistols, he pointed to its latest and most significant acquisition — a $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle — as an example of a special-operations asset that has yet to be used in the field.
“We are demilitarizing it by taking off the plating [and] taking off the turret before we use it,” Foley said. “If it is deployed, it would be a backup vehicle for our emergency response team.”
The deputy chief added that a similar vehicle held by Hartford police has been deployed just twice in the last 20 years: Once to support teams involved in the attempted rescue of an officer in a hostage situation, and once in response to threats of a sniper in the city’s downtown area. Last November, one of the law enforcement groups on campus responding the threat of a loose gunman dispatched a Humvee to Elm Street. A key point made during the City Hall discussion on Thursday was that police should continue to use these items with discretion. Blumenthal emphasized proper training as a means of preventing their misuse.
“I think we’ve seen images in Ferguson that show a lack of proper training. Some of this equipment could have been better used — defensively, not offensively,” he said. “No matter how good the equipment is, it has to be accompanied by the right training.”
He cited an incident in Manchester in 2011 where the use of armored vehicles saved many police lives as proof that military equipment can be a valuable asset when handled properly. He also reiterated the importance of maintaining a nonthreatening public image.
One way of doing so, he said, is demonstrating the use of armored vehicles in rescuing people trapped during Hurricane Sandy.
“A very intimidating-looking vehicle can be used in a non-intimidating, community-friendly way,” he added.
As a result, police are actively working to familiarize citizens with the equipment in order to dispel the notion that it is excessive or dangerous. The NHPD, for example, showcases a BearCat vehicle — which was built for police use, despite its armored exterior — at community events.
Because they said they believe in police’s ability to learn how to handle this equipment properly, the officials in attendance concluded that actually curtailing the distribution of military hardware might not be necessary.
“There is a compelling case for continuing the programs, but with greater accountability, proper use and proper training,” Blumenthal said.
The Hearst report indicates that the YPD’s most recent supply shipment, a 165-unit bundle of chemiluminescent light worth a total of $2,465.10, arrived on June 25.