Baltimore police limit requests for surplus military goods

What exactly is an 'artic' kit?

When President Barack Obama called last week for limiting a controversial federal program that allows law enforcement agencies to obtain surplus military equipment, he pointedly mentioned the unrest in Baltimore.

But the city's Police Department had not used the program since 2013, according to a Baltimore Sun review of federal records. And items the president wishes to ban are largely absent from recent grants to city police.

Critics of the program say that the presence of military equipment has heightened tensions in places like Ferguson, Mo., where demonstrators protested the police killing of an unarmed teen last year. Author Radley Balko calls such militarization the "rise of the warrior cop."

When Baltimore police donned helmets, shields and other riot gear last month to confront students and others near Mondawmin Mall, their equipment did not include items like treaded, tank-style vehicles and missile launchers, which are among the items Obama wants to remove from program offerings.

One of the few Baltimore Police Department acquisitions from the last decade that will likely be removed from future federal offerings is a set of bayonets, acquired in 2011. The list of targeted items comes from a federal "equipment working group" that released final recommendations last week.

Many of the large trucks and crowd-control devices used by city officers in late April would remain available under the president's proposed reforms.

In announcing changes to the federal program, Obama said, "We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force, as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them. It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message. So we're going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has stated that she considered Baltimore's police response to the unrest to have been relatively restrained and "much different" from what took place in Ferguson and other places.

While acknowledging that some police equipment is military in nature, Karl N. Milligan of the National Police Defense Foundation stressed that surplus military items can be used ceremonially, while even big-wheeled, armored trucks have defensive uses.

Milligan, a former police lieutenant, said he was once rescued "when I was pinned down in the street and an armed man with a rifle was in a second-story window aiming at us. The police armored vehicle drove down the street and pulled me inside … eliminating the need for cover fire by other officers to complete my extraction."

He said police in most parts of the country rarely use the weapons that Obama wishes to restrict.

"Regarding the 'treaded, tank-like' vehicles the president removed from the program, I have never seen or heard of these vehicles being used in a city environment," Milligan said. "They would tear up our streets. The vehicles that are used have the extra-large tires and are used as a defensive tool, not offensive."

A representative of the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office took a similar tone. Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper said that the department works to treat citizens with dignity and respect. She said acquisitions under the federal program have included not only riot shields and shotguns, but also "blankets, raincoats, tape recorders" and a rowing machine.

The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Sometimes, the equipment transfers do not go smoothly. Bill Andres of the Arizona Game and Fish Department said his agency had received an item labeled as "KIT, ARTIC," which is a warming box for night vision goggles. "Evidently, if 1960s-era night vision goggle got too cold, they wouldn't function, so these boxes had special heating pads to warm the equipment in winter conditions."

He added, "We paid nothing for these and there was no shipping charge, but since we don't have any 1960s night vision equipment, we are in the process of returning these 'kits' to the federal government."

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For more information

To see year-by-year breakdowns of equipment obtained by Maryland agencies, visit baltimoresun.com/data

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