HASTINGS, Mich. — New guidelines from President Obama are forcing police agencies across the country, and here in Michigan, to return donated surplus military equipment to the federal government in a move some argue is designed to 'demilitarize' law enforcement.
Several local agencies, including the Barry County Sheriff's Department, have already returned military surplus equipment like track armored tank-like vehicles and grenade launchers they acquired through the federal program providing it to local departments.
The President's executive order to collect the equipment is viewed largely as a political one by opponents like Rep. Bill Huiznega, R-Michigan, who was one of six Republican members of the Michigan congressional delegation who sent a strongly worded letter to Obama urging him to reverse course.
"We write with dismay over your decision to prohibit the transfer of certain equipment from the federal government to state and local law enforcement agencies," the letter reads. “You have registered your concerns about the perception the public could have when seeing state and local law enforcement agencies utilizing such equipment in responding to criminal situations. However, we caution you to avoid penalizing every state and local law enforcement agency … for the bad acts of a few.”
>> READ: Full letter to President Obama here.
Huizenga said the decision appeared to be hasty and arbitrary.
"We are in a different world now that police officers have to be ready for far more dramatic occurrences like San Bernardino happening than we ever really planned to be in," he told FOX 17 by phone Wednesday. "It’s not about equipment, but a culture that has allowed bad things to happen.”
The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga , Mike Bishop, John Moolenaar, Candice Miller, Dave Trott and Fred Upton.
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, like many in law enforcement who spoke to FOX 17, isn't happy about the president's decision.
"You want to be prepared, look at what’s happening across the country," he said. “If you take a look at San Bernardino and who responded, it wasn’t Marines, it wasn’t Army, or Navy Seals. It was your local law enforcement."
Leaf said the department already returned its two track armored vehicles, which were more of a hindrance than a helpful tool. The vehicles lack steering wheels and are difficult to maneuver while being tough on county roads, he said.
Barry County, like many other agencies in the state, is allowed to keep its mine-resistant armored fighting vehicle, or MRAPs, provided through the program.
The vehicle, with no built-in weaponry, is designed for defense not offense, Leaf contends.
However, Leaf said the federal government's decision to also take back grenade launchers was a tougher pill to swallow because the department uses them in stand-offs and other hostile situations to launch tear gas.
“The problem is people read the itemized list of what we had and it says 'grenade launchers,' well there’s also tear gas grenades," he said. "We don’t have the fragmenting grenades; We don’t want those.”
The loss of the five donated launchers will likely mean a more expensive alternative for taxpayers if the county has to purchase its own, according to Leaf.
“The alternative is we’re going to have to go buy one and that could be anywhere between $1,200 to $3,000," Leaf said.
Widespread concerns over the appropriate use of surplus military equipment and how protester were handled in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of 2014, provided the impetus for Obama to sign the executive order earlier in the year. A task force outlined prohibited items to be returned, including tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets.
A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union urged the federal government to rein in efforts to donate the equipment to police, while also requesting the feds keep better track of where and how the equipment is being used locally.
Agencies affected in West Michigan include:
- Berrien County: returned two grenade launchers
- Barry County: returned two track armored vehicles, five grenade launchers
- Calhoun County: returned on track armored vehicle
- Gaines Township Police: returned three bayonets
- Holland Police: returned one grenade launcher
- Muskegon County: returned on track armored vehicle
Leaf questions concerns raised over a program passed nearly 25 years ago as part of the National Defense Authorization Act and 1033 Program to combat the nation’s war on drugs. Years later, it was expanded to include the war on terror. Since the program began, the military has transferred more than $5.1 billion worth of property.
“We’ve used military equipment for decades, back in the Vietnam and Korean War we had Jeeps," he said. "If you really think about, a Flintlock musket was a military weapon at one time.”
>> MORE: See complete list of equipment donated through the program to Michigan agencies.
Since 2006, Michigan police agencies have received $43 million worth of surplus military equipment, including 17 mine-resistant armored fighting vehicles and 1,795 M16 automatic rifles, according to an earlier report from the Associated Press.
The order took effect Oct.1, but agencies will have until April 1 to return the items, according to Susan Lowe, public affairs specialist with Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the federal surplus program.
Lowe said agencies returning track armored vehicles can request to be placed at the top of the list to replace it with an MRAP, but it's unclear how long that might take.