SOUTHEASTERN, NC (WECT) – Police officers carrying automatic weapons designed for the military is a growing trend with police departments and sheriff's offices here and across the country.
While most people agree police need to have adequate weaponry to respond in the event of a mass shooting or hostage standoff, critics say some civilian police officers are starting to look like soldiers. In Columbia, South Carolina, for example, the sheriff has a military tank outfitted with a 50 caliber machine gun for his civilian police force.
In our viewing area, the closest thing to that tank is the Brunswick County Sheriff's Armored Personnel Carrier. It does not have a machine gun attached, but Sheriff John Ingram's deputies do have AR-15s in case they ever need them.
The ACLU is working to compile a list of this equipment acquired by civilian police across the country.
"Towns don't need tanks," the agency's spokesperson in Raleigh, Mike Meno, explained of the rationale behind their campaign. "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."
Meno said these weapons create an "us versus them" mentality between the police and the public.
"These are weapons that are designed for the battlefield, not for everyday policing," said Meno."I think that it's very important to note that the police and the military have very different functions."
Sheriff Ingram said his office works hard not to create an "us versus them" mentality.
"But there are occasions where it is law enforcement versus a bad guy. We have to have equipment to address those situations," explained Ingram.
Brunswick County's Armored Personnel Carrier and much of the military grade equipment at local law enforcement agencies is donated military surplus equipment. Other gear is purchased with grant money, and occasionally departments use local tax money to buy this equipment.
Wilmington tax payers kicked in $63,000 to purchase the WPD's $270,000 BearCat, which is a miniature version of Brunswick County's armored personnel carrier. It's been used to respond to 33 calls since the WPD bought it in 2011.
Most of the local sheriff's offices have military grade weapons, but we were not aware that so many of the small police departments in our area have them too.
Whiteville, Kure Beach, Tabor City, Burgaw, Boiling Spring Lakes and the Wrightsville Beach Police Departments all have military surplus weapons, a combination of M-14s, M-16s, and AR-15s.
Kure Beach Mayor Dean Lambeth says law enforcement officers never know what they may be up against.
"Anytime we can get some crazies down here starting some stuff that the police department will have to put down," he explained of needing to have adequate weapons on hand.
Kure Beach officers have not had time to train on the military weapons so they have not been issued yet, but they likely will be within the next year. This highlights another concern from the ACLU.
"Especially at those smaller departments, the question about training is really important, because do these officers that have to walk a beat and do all these other things, do they have the time to get sufficient training?" Meno asked.
In New Hanover County, Sheriff Ed McMahon requires deputies who carry automatic weapons to have a shooting proficiency score of 90 percent. But McMahon says he wants to be seen as a community sheriff, not a battlefield commander.
That's why he changed the uniforms for the Emergency Response Team when he took office. Those specialized deputies still wear the black SWAT team uniforms when out on an ERT call, but otherwise, their uniforms are a neutral color like other deputies.
And even though they have them, McMahon and Ingram agree that law enforcement agencies need to think long and hard before using military style weapons in a civilian setting.
"Those are very powerful weapons, and we are in a very city atmosphere," explained McMahon. "So we just want to be very careful."
The ACLU is also concerned about agencies acquiring these weapons, and then feeling the need to use them just because they have them. This can lead to financial liability, since increased use of these weapons can lead to more lawsuits claiming excessive force by police.
In 2008, the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office paid out a $2.5 million settlement in the death of Peyton Strickland. The unarmed teenager was shot and killed inside his home by a SWAT team trying to serve a warrant.
Click here to see a breakdown of weapons and equipment used by departments in our areas: http://bit.ly/1kamg2T