Some residents concerned about sheriff’s large acquisition of military surplus equipment

Critics say police with military equipment start to look more like soldiers
Updated: Oct. 26, 2020 at 2:14 PM EDT
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COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - It’s not uncommon for local law enforcement offices to acquire surplus equipment no longer being used by the military. Many agencies in Southeastern North Carolina do, but the sheer volume of equipment recently obtained by the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office has some residents contacting us with concerns.

Since Sheriff Jody Greene took office in December 2018, his department has accepted $3.8 million dollars in surplus military equipment from the federal government, including two helicopters, a mine resistant vehicle, nine cargo and utility trucks, boats, 300 magazine cartridges and nine riot shields. Prior to Greene’s term, it does not appear the Columbus County Sheriff’s office accepted any military surplus equipment from the federal 1033 program in charge of equipment distribution.

The $3.8 million in equipment collected by Columbus County in the last two years dwarfs the equipment received by any other department in southeastern North Carolina over the course of decades. The closest contender is the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, which has amassed $1.4 million worth of surplus military equipment, but they started collecting it back in the 1990s. In fact, all the other departments in our area combined have collected $5.3 million in equipment from the 1033 program, which helps put the scale of Columbus County’s $3.8 million acquisition into perspective.

This comes at a time when Sheriff Greene recently requested county funding for riot gear. He has also been publicly questioned about his possible association with the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group of former military, police and first responders who have tasked themselves with defending the Constitution. Some consider them to be an extremist group, and Greene has denied any association with them.

Greene declined an interview request and said he had no comment after WECT inquired about his recent acquisition of military surplus equipment. Columbus County residents who contacted us with concerns about Greene’s stockpile asked not to be identified. But it’s worth noting that the surplus military gear the CCSO is collecting doesn’t appear to include any assault rifles or other lethal force weapons.

For years, critics have questioned the 1033 program, saying that police with military equipment start to look more like soldiers. The topic first made headlines after the 2014 death of an unarmed 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

The city erupted in protests. In response, law enforcement agencies deployed their military-style equipment to manage the escalating crowds, earning criticism for their use of force.

“Towns don’t need tanks,” ACLU spokesperson Mike Meno told WECT in 2014, when the station did a special report on this topic. “When you see small towns in America, in communities where police departments have tanks, where they have assault weapons, I think that prompts a lot of questions. These are weapons that are designed for the battlefield, not for everyday policing. I think that it’s very important to note that the police and the military have very different functions."

Meno said these weapons create an “us versus them” mentality between the police and the public.

In response to public concern, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2014 (Executive Order 13688: Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition) that required federal agencies to review what equipment was being supplied to police departments. The executive order also restricted excessive use of militarization equipment and the use of weapons of war by inexperienced police.

President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s restrictions and now allows law enforcement access to military equipment and resources regardless of training or experience.

Fallout from the recent death of George Floyd renewed concerns about the military equipment some law enforcement agencies are using. Officers turned out to monitor protesters in riot gear that some felt escalated a tense situation instead of diffusing it.

Despite the optics, police responding to a hostage standoff or a mass shooting arguably need special vehicles and gear so they can protect themselves while protecting the public.

Out of the estimated 18,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, about 8,200 participate in the 1033 program to accept equipment the military is no longer using. The program has been donating military equipment to law enforcement agencies since 1997, to be used for bona fide law enforcement purposes, particularly those associated with counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities.

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