Police militarization? Valley police collect free military gear

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Violent clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., led to criticism from the highest offices in the country about police becoming too much like the military. Valley police agencies are also acquiring military equipment -- designed for use in a war zone.

Shock and awe struck the Ferguson protesters as police in vehicles resembling tanks fired tear gas and concussion grenades at them. The heavy-handed response drew the country's attention for weeks and prompted a debate over whether local police acted too much like an army. And over the last year, almost $500 million worth of U.S. military equipment has moved from bases and war zones to the cities of America -- from rifles to armored vehicles.

That includes the mine resistant armor protected vehicle known as an MRAP. It's about 12 feet tall, 25-and-a-half feet long and it's already served a tour of duty in the Middle East. Its assignment now, though, is the streets of Merced County. "We're very aware, especially now, of how these things are perceived and it's something we want to assure the public we will use responsibly," said Merced County Sheriff Tom Cavallero.

The Merced County Sheriff's Office is among the leaders in the Central Valley in acquiring military surplus equipment for free. Almost $2 million worth -- including the MRAP, a Huey helicopter and even a Cessna airplane -- have moved from the military to Merced County in the last eight years.

Sheriff Cavallero says the military equipment lets his office keep up with the times on a tight budget. And every item has a specific use in policing. The Cessna runs air surveillance; the Huey transports deputies to remote locations -- like marijuana grow sites -- and the MRAP will be a SWAT vehicle.

"We're really not trying to be sneaky," said SWAT Capt. B.J. Jones. "We want them to know we're coming."

But Merced County is far from alone in building an inventory of military equipment. Mariposa County got a Mamba armored vehicle. Delano police got a Puma armored vehicle. And the military distributed rifles, helmets and clothing all over the Valley. Clovis police grabbed grenade launchers, a truck for their bomb squad, and most recently, an MRAP of their own. It's the city's first armored truck for its 20-member SWAT team.

"By its very nature it's going to provide us with a great level of protection," said Capt. Vince Leonardo of the Clovis Police Department. "And I truly believe this vehicle is going to save somebody's life at some point in time."

An old military issue armored vehicle may have done just that in May 2002. The Fresno Police SWAT team used it to smoke out a suspect who had already killed Sheriff's deputy Dennis Phelps. Mark Volpa opened fired as he left his trailer, but he hurt no one else before officers gunned him down.

"Absent having that vehicle at that location at that time, I'm confident we would've had officers killed beyond the deputy," said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.

And yet, Fresno police haven't acquired a single item from the military in more than a decade. Chief Dyer says it's been a choice driven at least in part by perception. "We don't want to be looked upon as an occupying force in neighborhoods or to come in and be oppressive," he said.

Whether from the military or civilian manufacturers, police are convinced they can win the hearts and minds of their neighborhoods simply by putting the tools to the right use. But Congress is already considering new restrictions on the surplus program.

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