The tragedy and violence in Ferguson, Mo. has sprouted a new conversation about the "militarization" of police forces in the nation. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was created and while beefing up security against terrorism in the nation, it has also served to equip local law enforcement agencies with all kinds of hardware and other resources they would otherwise never be able to afford. The Defense Department has similar equipment giveaways after more than a decade of wars.
According to a chart in the New York Times Friday, Mendocino County has, through the free Defense Department program, gotten 11 night vision goggles, six assault rifles, and five pieces of body armor. Compare that to supplies received in neighboring counties, according to the chart: 89 assault rifles in Sonoma County and eight nightvision goggles and 86 assault rifles in Humboldt County and one anti-mine vehicle.
In a conversations Friday morning with Ukiah Police Chief Chris Dewey and Sheriff Tom Allman, both men said they see no reason for large supplies of military style equipment.
Dewey explained that while Mendocino County as a whole has mostly spent its Homeland Security money on community needs, he acknowledges that police departments have had to beef up their equipment in large part because the bad guys already have.
"More people are armed with rifles today than ever before," he said. He recalled the 2011 shooting of Fort Bragg resident Jeri Melo and the monthlong standoff between police and suspect Aaron Bassler.
"Bassler had an AK47. We had to call in SWAT teams from elsewhere to come in and help," Dewey said. And he cited the recent shooting death of Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino "Who would have thought in our tiny county you would have that kind of officer death? And he was ambushed. It's not uncommon even in rural areas to be outgunned by these kind of freaks."
Right now, Dewey said, the county and its cities are working to consolidate their SWAT equipment into one combined SWAT team. "They do have specialized equipment," Dewey said. Helmets and camouflage uniforms, however, have been basic equipment since the 1990s.
"We did buy a Bearcat with Homeland Security money," he added, referring to the common SWAT team armored vehicle. "That was a countywide decision. We went into that cooperatively."
Allman agreed. "We have our Bearcat, but it was built as a civilian SWAT vehicle. It has all the insignias (from the county's law enforcement agencies). We all share it. That was important because our county has a need for one — but not two."
Allman said that with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is more military equipment out there shifting to law enforcement.
Is he tempted by that?
"No, not at all," he said. "I get those emails, but we're very satisfied with what we have up here and we think we have some very modern equipment." He added that former military equipment also comes with bureaucratic headaches.
"There's no such thing as a free lunch. Maintenance is high and it's a paperwork nightmare," he said.
Dewey said he is aware of the temptation for some law enforcement departments to over-equip through Homeland Security, which provides money each year for police agencies to spend on an approved list of equipment and training. Homeland Security also has programs where it allows police agencies to take on equipment the military is no longer using. In those cases, police agencies have to send someone to a military base where the equipment resides which is why Dewey doesn't participate, it's too time consuming. He said he did it once many years back and got 100 sleeping bags for the homeless who were being housed at that time at St. Mary's Catholic Church, before the county had its shelter.
"A lot of police departments get in trouble because they go (to the military base) and come back with a tank. And then people ask, why do we need a tank?" Dewey said, adding that it adds to the argument that police agencies are getting too militarized.
"They have a point, it creates a gap between you and the people you're supposed to serve," Dewey said.
Dewey and Allman are part of what in Mendocino County is called the Gang of Five, a group representing the three city police departments, the sheriff's department and the county's fire departments. They get together regularly and decide what the needs are for the Homeland Security funding that comes through each year.
Equipment and training they have paid for in the past few years includes:
• Upgrading radio repeaters at fire departments. Allman notes this provides redundancy for radio communications so that during a massive internet outage like the one on the coast recently, they have a second radio system for emergency personnel.
• Medical trailers prepositioned throughout the county for disasters and other emergencies (which are being used in the current Lodge Complex fire).
• Training for large animal rescue — especially for fire emergencies to rescue horses and cows.
• Training to build Community Emergency Response Teams for small communities to have local residents who can train others in disaster preparedness and response. Allman noted that they just got another 250 CERT kits with Homeland Security funds.
• Live scan fingerprinting equipment to replace the old fingerprint card system, which Dewey said the Department of Justice no longer accepts.
• Training for officers on "active shooter" response, if someone goes to a campus armed and violent. Allman noted that it is no longer the practice to simply say "we've got you covered, come out with your hands up" is these situations. Even a lone officer first at the scene is expected to go in and take action.
• Training for teachers on how to recognize the signs of an impending classroom disturbance.
• Training for officers on dealing with suicidal people and other mental health crises.
• Installing more defibrillators in strategic areas around the county.
And, Dewey said, they hope to spend funds on getting video conferencing systems at the county command centers so that personnel don't have to drive back and forth from inland to the coast and from north to south to have meetings on things like gang enforcement and to also make communication during emergencies easier.
"Here in Mendocino County I'm really proud of how cooperative our community is," Dewey said.
Allman said much the same thing.
"When I talk to other sheriffs, they often talk about disputes over Homeland Security money. I've never experienced that at all," he said.
(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)