Lane County, a Hotbed for Oregon’s Most Militarized Police
Monday, October 13, 2014
From bomb-disposing robots to grenade launchers, police departments across Oregon have received 5,286 military items totaling more than $11 million; that has critics concerned that the gap between those doing the policing and those who are policed is getting wider and wider.
Lane County police agencies received 58 percent more surplus military equipment than other police departments in Oregon from the now-famous U.S. military surplus program known as 1033.
SEE SLIDESHOW BELOW: Lane County Sheriff's Office Military Gear
Communities have been on edge about the militarization of police since the racial and social unrest that erupted in Ferguson, a St. Louis, Mo., suburb of 21,203 residents last August. Since then images of police in military garb armed with heavy weapons and facing down unarmed civilians have stirred many in the nation to re-examine how civilian law-enforcement agencies are trained and equipped.
“I’m definitely not for the militarization of the police force,” said Eric Richardson, president of the Lane County chapter of the NAACP. "I’m more for community policing. When you have that type of thing it definitely works against the community/police relationship.”
Since 2009, police agencies in 29 Oregon counties have received military surplus equipment. In Lane County, the number of items collected by police agencies totaled 1,454 and more than $3 million. Coming in second was Polk County, with 1,289 items totaling about $1.3 million.
Polk County also contains the town that purchased the most military gear in the state, the small town of Independence.
City police departments in Oregon have received 1,392 military items ranging from helmets to binoculars to bulletproof vests to exercise equipment, totaling $382,685.
Police say the equipment is needed.
"Eugene police officers are sent to respond to armed subjects and must be provided with the equipment necessary to go home safely to their families," according to a statement from Eugene police. "We have a responsibility to provide the safest environment for our officers and the public."
The Defense Logistics Agency program gives leftover military gear to police departments who, in turn, pay for shipping. In Eugene, police received a $300,000 Humvee for just $5,000. The low cost or free items worry critics of the program.
“Our concern is that because the federal government is making this kind of equipment available at no cost or very low cost to police agencies that they are using the equipment inappropriately,” said David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "It’s just one of many factors that’s kind of separating the police from the people they are trying to protect, rather than bringing them closer to the community.”
“If we hadn’t gotten that (Humvee) through the surplus program, we would have had to purchase that at the taxpayers' expense,” said Melinda McLaughlin, Eugene Police public information director .
The free equipment, however, can temp agencies into obtaining unnecessary gear, critics warn.
“There’s a tendency to use the equipment in situations where it’s not really needed and can, in fact, be counterproductive, as we saw in Ferguson,” Fidanque said. “I don’t think there’s any question that a lot of agencies, particularly rural agencies, would not have this equipment except for this program.
"Many of them rarely, if ever, use it.”
The Law Enforcement Support Office reviews requests for gear for the Defense Department to see if the items are needed. Those requests are sent in by a state coordinator, who receives requests from police agencies, Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman Latonya Johnson said.
President Barack Obama ordered a review of the program after the furor over Ferguson.
Senators held a hearing last month on the issue and slammed Pentagon officials over the military surplus program. Officials from both parties blamed the federal government for militarizing police.
To date, the total value of equipment provided to law-enforcement agencies nationally through the Law Enforcement Support Office program is $5.1 billion.
With the National Guard on hand in states to respond to emergency situations, Richardson questioned the need for police to have this type of gear on hand.
“There’s no need for the police department to militarize in that sense as well,” he said.
Related Slideshow: Military Gear Obtained by the Lane County Sheriff’s Office
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