WCSO Fleet and Communications Supervisor Allen Kyker said this modified Humvee was acquired to serve as a mobile communications center during disaster situations. (Photo Contributed)
While some may perceive the use of military-grade equipment on U.S. citizens as a disaster, Washington County law enforcement officials said they acquired military equipment to help mitigate disasters.
Though the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has acquired approximately $9.7 million worth of military equipment since 1993, officials said the bulk of that equipment would be used to help, not harm, citizens.
The issue of the use of military-grade equipment and weapons by local law enforcement agencies was thrust into the national spotlight after Ferguson (Mo.) Police Department officers were seen using armored tactical vehicles, body armor and assault rifles in response to protests and riots following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The issue has become prevalent enough to warrant the attention of President Barack Obama, who, on Aug. 18, ordered a review of federal programs that supply ex-military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
According to a story released Sunday by the Associated Press, Tennessee ranks among the nation’s leaders in the acquisition of re-purposed military equipment. The AP reported that since 1993, Tennessee agencies had acquired $121 million worth of military surplus items, and of those agencies, the WCSO had accumulated the highest total after receiving $9.7 million worth of equipment.
But, according to WCSO Fleet and Communications Supervisor Allen Kyker, who oversees the office’s military surplus program, that dollar amount can be misleading.
“That’s what the military originally paid for something,” Kyker said. “For our department, it’s $800 a year.”
The $800 annual fee goes toward the WCSO’s participation in the Law Enforcement Support Office, a U.S. Department of Defense program set up to redistribute unused or discarded military equipment to the nation’s local law enforcement agencies. Once an agency enrolls in the program and pays its annual fee — which varies depending on its number of officers — that agency can search through an online inventory and apply for a particular item.
The WCSO isn’t the only local law enforcement agency to participate in this program; the Johnson City Police Department and Carter County Sheriff’s Department are among several others to receive equipment through the LESO.
For Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal, the program has proven to be an asset for the county by facilitating cost-effective solutions for acquiring expensive equipment.
“Mainly what we’re concerned about is getting things we knew the county could never afford,” Graybeal said.
With regard to the issue of police force in Ferguson, however, Graybeal said there was no basis for comparison between his agency and theirs.
“This isn’t Missouri,” Graybeal said. “I don’t think you can compare agencies. I think we have proven ourselves with what we do for the people of Washington County.”
What he and his officers have done, Graybeal said, is procure equipment to assist in the response to natural disasters. Without that equipment, he said, the response to situations like the fatal tornadoes that struck Washington County in April 2011 or the flooding experienced by the Dry Creek community in August 2012 would have been different.
“When we had the tornado, I had about six cruisers that couldn’t go anywhere because they ran through boards that had nails in them,” he said. “But the big truck we’ve got down there (an armored personnel carrier) ... that thing will go anywhere.
“If we needed to go where, say, when we had the flood in Dry Creek, and if we needed to get people out of houses, that thing (the APC) and the Humvees are what that’s for.”
Included among the WCSO’s LESO fleet is what the AP reported was the most expensive originally priced item — a $5 million communications system. According to Kyker, however, that “system” is a modified Humvee.
“It’s just a Humvee with a small box on the back of it where someone could sit in and run communications equipment,” Kyker said. “It had communications equipment in it at some point, but it didn’t have any when we picked it up. But that’s our plan for it.”
Along with vehicles, Kyker said he had procured additional equipment like tents, generators, storage containers, forklifts, construction lighting towers and freezers through the LESO. Despite that array of equipment, Kyker said there was one type of item he had yet to acquire — weaponry.
“I have put in for no weapons in two years,” he said. “The department was part of the program back in the late ’90s. They got eight, I think, M-16s that are part of our inventory, but I did not procure those.
“It’s a lot of different stuff. It’s not just guns and cars.”
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